No Step Taken for Granted

Photo by Belinda Agamaite.

Photo by Belinda Agamaite.

"If I leave this tent, I'm crossing that finish line," I said to the medic as I tried to convince him to let me continue my race at Javelina Jundred. It had been nearly two hours since I arrived at the aid station at Jackass Junction (mile 83.2) and had been taken into the medical tent with hypothermia. I arrived shivering, barely able to continue moving forward because I was shaking so badly, and unable to eat anything because my teeth were chattering. I felt it come on (I had felt it before), but there was nothing I could do. I was wearing the only extra layer I had until I could reach my bag at Javelina Jeadquarters (mile 91.8). That seemingly short distance of just under 9 miles may as well have been another 83. It was too far for me to go in that condition. I wouldn't make it. 

When I arrived at Jackass Junction, I told my pacer I needed a cot, I needed blankets, and I needed something containing hot water to warm my arteries. A medic led me to a cot in the medical tent and gave me some blankets. Shortly after, he brought me ziplock baggies with hot water. As I placed the baggies on my brachial arteries, I looked around. I was surrounded by shivering runners on cots, all waiting for rides. After 30 minutes or so, I was still shivering. Every time the desert wind blew into the tent, I shivered a little more. I had no idea how I was going to continue. My eyes got heavy and welled with tears. "No," I told myself. "This time I will not lose it. This time, I will pull it together." "We have a car here to take you out," I heard a medic say. I glanced up from the cot, my eyes full with the tears I would not let myself cry: "I'm not done. Tell them I'm not done." The medic agreed to give me a few more minutes.  

Sarah and me at the start. 

Sarah and me at the start. 

My day at Javelina started off well. I had a soft pace goal in mind, but my plan was to run by feel. Because I had had a demanding summer and because I had run Waldo 100k and Pine to Palm 100 in the weeks leading up to Javelina, I had no firm expectations. Given that I had spent the first four months of the year unable to so much as cross train due to injury, I knew that running back-to-back 100s was an ambitious goal. I focused on recovery and quality (food, rest, running) more than I ever had before. As the weeks between Pine to Palm and Javelina progressed, I started to regain my energy. Aside for two weeks when I was very ill, I felt stronger and stronger, and I got faster and faster, with every run. I sent my friend Sarah a text: "I keep waiting to fall apart. When am I going to fall apart?" I never did. For the first time since I started running five years ago, I toed a start line of a race feeling totally prepared. 

Loop 1 (photo by Chris Furman).

Loop 1 (photo by Chris Furman).

LOOPS 1-4 (start to mile 61.2): I ran the first loop with Sarah and our friend Ethan, occasionally leap-frogging with our friend Stephen, also from Portland. We had similar pace goals and we didn't want to go out too fast, so we stayed together, talking away as though it were any other Saturday. We completed the first 15.3-mile loop in 2:49:06, and I felt strong. I set out on the second loop with Sarah. It wasn't long, though, before my stomach started to turn on me, forcing me to fall back. I've had stomach issues during 100s before, but never so early. By the time I was two loops (~50k) in, I had vomited three times. I told Sarah to run ahead and that I would catch up later. I needed to take a step back to try to get my stomach under control. By the end of loop two (~6:06 in), my stomach had settled. Unfortunately, my lungs and sinuses had not fully recovered from being so sick in the weeks prior and my breathing was very shallow, making my stomach seize into knots, which never dissipated over the course of the entire race. 

Once my stomach settled, I was able to run strong once again. My legs felt amazingly good and I had more energy than I ever anticipated. I had settled into a steady pace that I was able to maintain despite the labored breathing and knots in my stomach. Most of all, I was having fun. I reached the end of loop 4, the 100k mark, in a PR time: 13:26:41. I changed my shirt and shoes, and I met my pacer.

Approaching the 100k mark (photo by Chris Furman).

Approaching the 100k mark (photo by Chris Furman).

LOOPS 5-7 (miles 61.2-100.9): I ran loop 5 without issue, picking up an extra layer in my drop bag at Jackass Junction and running into the warm, peaceful night. The desert was dark and much quieter than it was the previous year when the howls of coyotes and the grunting of the javelina filled the air. The dark night sky lit up in all directions with lightning, illuminating the hills in the distance and the soft desert sand. I was in awe of the beauty that surrounded me. 

When I began loop 6, I was tired, but still felt good. My legs felt strong and I was still running a steady pace. As the night progressed, though, the temperature dropped rapidly within the span of only a hour, something I did not expect based on my experience the previous year when the nighttime temperature never felt cool. I had emergency layers in my drop bag at Javelina Jeadquarters, but that aid station was hours away. By mile 80, I was shivering and barely able to walk, let alone run. I crossed paths with a runner and his pacer: "Is that Desiree?" I heard. I stopped and turned off my headlamp. "It's Craig," the voice said. It was Craig Thornley. "How are you doing?" he asked. "I'm having a hard night," I said. "Some days are hard," he replied as he wrapped his arms around me and gave me a hug. All of a sudden, I was overcome with emotion, so happy to see someone from home and feel the support of the community I knew was rooting for me. "We'll see you at the finish, okay?" he said. I nodded my head, turned my light back on, and walked forward. Maybe it was seeing someone from home or maybe it was hearing someone I respect so much say that he'd see me at the finish, but I knew at that moment that my race wasn't over. 

At the start of loop 6, 76.5 miles in (photo by Belinda Agamaite).

At the start of loop 6, 76.5 miles in (photo by Belinda Agamaite).

I reached the aid station at Jackass Junction in bad condition. I knew I was hypothermic and had been for several miles. Unlike my two previous experiences with hypothermia, however, I was still coherent, giving me hope that I could pull it together. As I lie on a cot in the medical tent trying to get warm, I shivered each time the wind blew. Another runner asked me what was wrong. "I can't get warm," I said. "I'm cold on the inside and I can't stop shaking." A medic entered the tent to tell me it was their responsibility to pull me. It would not be safe to let me continue, he told me. "Wait until sunrise," the runner said. Everything will be better when the sun comes up. You'll get warm." The medic asked me if I was ready to go. "I've finished the race before and I can finish it again," I said. "Let me wait until the sun comes up." The medic left the tent to go talk to another medic. He returned. He agreed to let me go, but made me promise to check in and out of every aid station from there on, proving that I was okay. "If you decide to quit," he said. "I'm not quitting," I interrupted. He stopped talking. He handed me his sweater and a large garbage bag, both of which I put on. With renewed energy, I stood from the cot. The sun had not yet started to rise, but I didn't care. I was ready. "I'm leaving," I said.  

As I stood from the cot, I expected to be unbearably sore. I wasn't. I started to walk. My walk turned to a shuffle. My shuffle turned to a jog. Soon, my jog turned to a run. After two hours in a medical tent, any aspirations of running a specific finish time were gone, but I still had legs and I could still run. I would finish.

Sunrise on the Javelina race course (photo by Betty Lee).

Sunrise on the Javelina race course (photo by Betty Lee).

As the sun rose over the Arizona desert, I made my way back to Javelina Jeadquarters and I stripped away the garbage bag and then the medic's sweater. I caught up with the runner who talked to me in the tent. "Thank you," I said. "You saved my race." "You made it!" he exclaimed. "I didn't save your race," he replied. "You did." I thanked him again and I ran ahead. 

When I reached the start/finish area at Javelina Jeadquarters, I checked in long enough to say that I was alright and would be continuing. I asked for my glow necklace that would give me entrance to the 7th and final loop, I grabbed some food, and I left. The last loop was slow for me. I'm not proud of it. I could have moved faster and I didn't. I was determined to finish but, knowing that my finish time would probably not even match my time from the previous year, I stopped pushing. I made relentless forward progress one step at a time, but every step left me more disappointed in myself than the last. I didn't know how everything could have gone so well for so long only to fall apart due to one seemingly little mistake. I didn't know how I could let myself get hypothermia again. I felt like a failure. When I finally finished, I walked across the finish line. A volunteer handed me a buckle, a buckle exactly like the one that had brought me to tears only a year before. I paused. I considered handing it back. I didn't feel like I had earned it.

Crossing the finish line (28:41:53).

Crossing the finish line (28:41:53).

In the two weeks that have elapsed since finishing the race, I've reflected on and internalized my experience a lot. There are days when it makes me emotional and others when I feel stoic. Most of all, the last two weeks have given me perspective. When caught up in our goals and expectations, sometimes it's difficult to remember where we started. I began this year immobilized for four months with nerve damage, tissue damage, foot drop, and a torn meniscus. I devoted my year to physical therapy and rehab in an effort to regain some semblance of the strength, endurance, and speed I once had. I ended the year by running two 100-mile races in 7 weeks. For that, and for every step I've taken since starting to run again, I am thankful. I'm not where I want to be, but I'm so grateful to be where I am.  

To Hell and Back

Long is the way, and hard, that out of Hell leads to light.
— John Milton

People say that you should never toe the start line of a 100-mile race with any unresolved demons. What people don't tell you is what you should do when the race is your unresolved demon. My experience at Pine to Palm 100 in 2012 was miserable and defeating, both physically and emotionally, and it broke my confidence to an immeasurable degree. From the moment that I was cut from the race at 2:10 a.m. at mile 65 for missing a cutoff, I swore I would do whatever it took to gain the speed, experience, and strength necessary to return and finish. Next time, I would make it to Ashland. What I did not know was how much my previous experience and self-doubt would impact my journey.

I spent two years training to run Pine to Palm. I ran many races in those two years, but the end goal, the thought that always lingered in the back of my mind, was Pine to Palm. I trained, crewed, paced, and raced thousands of miles in those two years. I became more comfortable navigating mountain terrain. I changed my diet. I lost 10 lbs. I got injured and I recovered. After every good run, strong run, weak run, speed run, slow run, mountain run, and long run I emerged a little stronger.

At the start line, indescribably nervous (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At the start line, indescribably nervous (photo by Sarah Duncan).

When race weekend arrived, I was not ready to run. Despite all of the planning and all of the training, despite having a crew of dedicated friends who believed in me, I did not have an ounce of confidence. To make things worse, I had been battling an issue with my hamstring that began after pacing a friend during her 100-mile race three weeks earlier. I had done everything I could to remedy the issue, but I wasn't sure it was enough. 

Because my race in 2012 ended at mile 65 at the base of Dutchman Peak, I began my race this year with the mindset that my race didn't start until I summited Dutchman Peak at mile 67 and made the 2:00 a.m. cutoff. I had markers in my head of various points in the race and I knew roughly what my splits were for various aid stations in 2012 but, beyond that, I had no strategy. My plan was to keep a positive attitude, to savor the beauty of the course that surrounded me, and to run by feel. 

Start to Seattle Bar (28 miles):

The race began with a slow and steady climb up Greyback mountain. The climb was just as long and steep as I remembered, but, somehow, I moved a lot faster than I did in 2012, reaching the top exactly one hour faster. 

Smoke from the forest fires (photo by Hal Koerner).

Smoke from the forest fires (photo by Hal Koerner).

As I approached the top of the climb, the smoke from forest fires in the area became more and more dense and my breathing more and more labored. By the time I started my descent, I was already coughing. When I finally reached my crew at the Seattle Bar aid station, I felt like I was running with a weight on my chest. It was also around this time that my nose started to bleed. It continued to bleed consistently for the next 10 or so hours. 

As I approached Seattle Bar, I saw Sarah D. I told her I was having trouble breathing. "It's gets better," she said. "You wouldn't lie to me, right?" I asked. "Well," she said, "it's better in Ashland and you're going to Ashland."

I ran in to the Seattle Bar aid station and handed off my pack to the rest of my amazing crew (Megan and Marta) while I weighed in and got a popsicle. At this point in 2012, I had gained 5lbs. This year, I had gained nothing. With my confidence in my training renewed, I left, headed for the next big climb, the one I considered the worst. 

Seattle Bar to Stein Butte (~35 miles):

I remembered the climb to Stein Butte well. I knew it would be hot, steep, and long. I was prepared for that. On the drive from Portland to Williams the day before the race, Sarah joked that with my heat training and hill work, I would feel like I was on an escalator. I was surprised to find that she was right. It was hard, but not nearly as hard as I remembered. 

When I reached the Stein Butte aid station, I quickly refilled my pack with water and my bandana with ice and made my way to Squaw Lakes, where I would once again get to see my amazing crew. The thought of seeing their smiling faces and hearing them cheer moved me forward.

Stein Butte to Squaw Lakes (~mile 39 and 42):

As I began my descent toward Squaw Lakes, I quickly noticed that I was starting to get a blister on my left foot, one so bad that I was barely able to run the downs within a few miles. Blister aside, I still managed to reach the lake a full 30 minutes faster than I had in 2012. I was ecstatic. I gave my pack to my crew, exchanging it for a handheld, and told them what I would need (including blister care) after making the trip around the lake. 

Because I arrived earlier this year than I had in 2012, I was not pushed to get around the lake to make a cutoff. Instead, I was able to run an easy pace and enjoy the beautiful trail. It felt like any other easy weekend run. 

Running in to Hanley Gap. Me: "Uh...you guys...it's still daylight" (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Running in to Hanley Gap. Me: "Uh...you guys...it's still daylight" (photo by Sarah Duncan).

I reached the other side of the lake and briefly sat dan while Megan fed me and Marta and Sarah tended to my feet. As I ate, I confirmed I wasn't going to miss a cutoff (the thought still lingered and I couldn't believe I felt that strong while not pushing it). "Des, you are nowhere near missing a cutoff," Sarah said.

Once they finished addressing my feet, I picked up my pack and my headlamps, prepared for the night to come. I would get to see my crew again at Hanley Gap, but I was confident it would be dark before I arrived. As I made my way from the lake to the trail, my crew drove by cheering. Their positivity permeated the smoke-filled air. 

Squaw Lakes to Hanley Gap (mile 50 and 52):

The climb to Hanley Gap was uneventful and, like the previous two climbs, was not nearly as bad as I remembered it. I made it there much faster than I anticipated, over two hours earlier than I had in 2012.

I handed off my pack to my crew and began my accent to the top of Hanley Gap to retrieve my flag, amazed that I was going to get to do this in the daylight, and it was an added bonus to see the fire-burnt sunset as I reached the top.

At the summit of Hanley Gap (photo by Tom Riley).

At the summit of Hanley Gap (photo by Tom Riley).

I retrieved my flag and I quickly made my descent, arriving at the aid station 30 minutes faster than I had told my crew I would.

Knowing that I've suffered hypothermia at two separate 100-mile races, my crew and I were aware that we would need to be vigilant about keeping me warm and dry during the night. With that in mind, they had me change shirts when I reached the aid station.

Although I had been eating well and regularly all day, prolonged running in the smoke made my stomach tight and queazy, and I started to lose my appetite. Still, I refueled and readied myself to head out into the evening.  

Hanley Gap to Dutchman Peak (mile 65 and 67):

The stretch from Hanley Gap to the base of Dutchman Peak was very hard for me in 2012.  I was tired, my knees were shot, I was depleted, and I was terrified of the dark. This year, I felt like I cruised there, making conversation with runners as we crossed paths and enjoying the peace of the night when I was alone. 

The best case scenario arrival time prediction I gave my crew for mile 65 was 11:30 p.m. To their surprise and mine, I arrived at around 11:20 p.m., elated that I had not only made it to my first pacer (Megan), but that I was going to make the cutoff that I had missed in 2012. Not only was I going to make the cutoff; I was going to get there a full two hours earlier than I had in 2012. I looked at Megan: "Are you ready to summit this bitch?" I asked. "Let's do it!" she said.

At Hanley Gap, as my stomach started to churn (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At Hanley Gap, as my stomach started to churn (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As Megan and I ascended Dutchman Peak, she motioned to the right: "Those are the lights of Ashland, Des," she said as she put her arm around me. I started to cry tears of pure happiness. I had made it. Now my race could start.

At Jackson Creek Gap (mile 69), getting ready to head back out (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

At Jackson Creek Gap (mile 69), getting ready to head back out (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

We stayed at the top of Dutchman Peak just long enough to check in and refuel before we descended back to regroup with Marta and Sarah. The three of them helped me put on a layer of warm clothes and fed me warm mashed potatoes and broth. 

Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle (~mile 75):

Megan and I headed out for our 10-mile stretch together. I was so thankful to finally have a pacer to keep me company on a stretch of trail that would be entirely new to me, and I couldn't have been happier to have Megan with her positive attitude and motivational words.

Within about two miles of leaving the rest of the crew, I felt overwhelmingly nauseous. I had stomached food and Gu so well all day and had taken the usual Tums and Ginger to combat the queasiness I experienced from running in the smoke, so I was surprised to feel so sick. As hard as I tried, though, I couldn't keep going. I hunched over on the side of the trail and started to vomit. Megan put her hand under my pack and lifted its weight, trying to shoulder some of my discomfort. 

Once the vomiting subsided, we moved forward, but I was so nauseous and my muscles had seized up so much when I stopped to vomit that I wasn't able to run. It was everything I could do just to hike. Megan knew I was on a schedule to eat every 30-45 minutes, so she tried to get me to eat, but everything I tasted made by stomach churn. We resorted to me swallowing what was probably a quarter teaspoon of Gu every 20 minutes or so. It was all I could handle. Megan continued to encourage me, reminding me that every step was one closer to Ashland. 

At around 4:00 a.m., we finally reached the Long John Saddle aid station, where I would meet Marta and continue on for the remainder of the night. Since I had slowed down so significantly, I told Megan I wasn't going to stop at the aid station; I would keep going and she would send Marta out after me. When we reached the aid station, Megan stopped to check in with Marta and Sarah walked me out. I looked at Sarah and I started to cry: "I've slowed down too much," I said. "I'm going to get cut. I'm going to miss a cutoff." Sarah put her arm around me: "Des, you've made all of the cutoffs. You're so far ahead. No one is going to cut you." I wanted to believe her, but I didn't. I was so burdened by the memory of being cut in 2012 that I couldn't move beyond those feelings. 

Marta and Megan caught up with us on the other side of the aid station. Marta put her hands on my shoulders and looked directly into my eyes as she started to tear up: "Desiree, you are going to make it. You are not going to get cut." Little did she know how many more times she would have to say those words to me before the night was over. 

Long John Saddle to Wagner Butte (mile 80 and 85):

The two or so remaining hours of night between when we left Sarah and Megan and when we reached the Wagner Butte aid station were long and slow. My stomach continued to get more nauseous and I was barely able to eat anything, despite Marta's efforts. I hunched over several times on the side of the trail to dry heave and my breathing was increasingly labored. It was everything I could do to even stomach water. 

Retrieving my flag from the summit of Wagner Butte, mile 85 (photo by Marta Fisher).

Retrieving my flag from the summit of Wagner Butte, mile 85 (photo by Marta Fisher).

At some point, Marta asked a fellow pacer if he had vanilla Gu, the one flavor we found that I was still able to stomach. He didn't have any Gu, but he offered us chia seeds, which he had given to his runner when she started to get sick. "They'll help absorb the lactic acid in your stomach," he said. So I ate chia seeds and I drank water, periodically taking a small taste of Gu. That was my fuel for the remainder of the race.

We reached the Wagner Butte aid station just before dawn, where we unloaded excess clothing and fuel into our drop bags before making the final five-mile climb to summit Wagner Butte. 

After retrieving my flag and descending the boulder field, I started to cry again, no doubt because I was, at this point, too calorie-depleted to control my emotions. Calorie-depletion aside, though, the weight of my 2012 DNF started to become more than I could shoulder. "I'm not to going to make it," I said. "I've come so far and I'm not going to make it." Marta put her hands on my shoulders again. She looked at me and started to cry: "Des, you are going to make it. You have so much time." I didn't believe her. 

Wagner Butte to the finish (mile 100.5):

Marta and I moved forward as fast as my feet and legs would carry me, but by mile 85 or so, my blisters had gotten so bad that even a shuffle was painful. Normally downhill running is my strength, but the blisters made it so painful I could barely move. 

By the time we reached mile 95 or so, we could see Ashland in the distance and even heard the occasional road noise. It was so close and still so very far away. I had a pretty strong shuffle going, though, and I was determined to finish: "I just have to get to Ashland," I kept saying. "I just have to get to Ashland.

A two-year journey finally ends. 

A two-year journey finally ends. 

When we were about a mile from the finish line, where the trail meets the pavement of Ashland, we saw Sarah and Megan. I had never been so happy to see pavement. Sarah and Megan put their arms around me: "Let's finish this!" they said. "I'm not going to make it. They're going to cut me," I said. "Des," Sarah said, "you're going to make it. You're here." I didn't believe her. I had slowed down too much. I was in too much pain. Breathing hurt. It couldn't be possible that I was actually there. "I have been to hell and back," I said. "But you made it," Sarah replied. She stayed by my side for the remaining mile, telling me every turn that lie ahead. "See those cars? That's the finish line." I cried and, this time, I didn't stop. Somehow I found one last push of strength deep inside my body and I ran as hard and as fast as I could. As I crossed the finish line, Sarah, Megan, and Marta wrapped their arms around me and led me to a chair. "You did it!" Sarah said. "No," I said. "We did it."

Finish time: 33:01:09. Chapter closed. 

Finish time: 33:01:09. Chapter closed. 

A Disappointing Accomplishment

"Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic." - Tim Noakes

It is no secret that this year has been a particularly challenging one for me, both physically and mentally. Beginning on the first of January, I started to experience inexplicable nerve dysfunction that led to a litany of injuries that, themselves, took considerable rehab to overcome. As I continue to see specialists and to rehab over eight months later, I find that each day, each run, each race is a test of my ability and my will. My issues at the beginning of the year forced me to reevaluate my race goals and to shift my focus. I pulled out of all of my spring races with the hope of focusing my training on two very challenging events instead: Waldo 100k and Pine to Palm 100M. 

I awoke in excruciating pain repeatedly last Thursday night. I recognized the discomfort right away and called my doctor at the earliest opportunity the next morning: "I have a UTI," I said. "I'm leaving town in a couple of hours and I need to get antibiotics as soon as possible." After a frantic morning, which included a trip to the doctor and several trips to the pharmacy, I was finally on my way to Willamette Pass to toe the start line of the Waldo 100k for the third time. I could only hope that I had enough time to pump my body full of antibiotics, supplements, and water to offset the effects of the UTI and still have a functional race.

I was vocal about my goal leading into Waldo this year: I not only wanted to beat my 14:36 PR from last year; I wanted to break 14 hours. It was an ambitious goal (I'm not one to set any other kind) but, given my training, it was feasible. On Friday night, as I set my clothes out for the following morning, I told my friend Sarah D: "You know what really worries me? For the first time, I'm not nervous." "Maybe that's what happens eventually," she said. I slept peacefully for the next six hours until I awoke at 3:00 a.m. the next morning, my first time rising for the regular 5:00 a.m. start time. 

Start to Gold Lake (7.4 miles):

I ran the first section of the course more consistently and quicker than I did last year. As I approached the Gold Lake aid station, I was surprised by how great I felt. I stopped to take off my headlamps and refuel. As I reached for some food, I immediately felt sick to my stomach. I tried to eat some pretzels, but almost vomited in the process. "Antibiotics," I thought. "Keep moving."

Gold Lake to Mt. Fuji (12.4 miles): 

I began the next section knowing that I had a climb ahead of me to help me recover. After several minutes, I was able to stomach a little fuel, but I knew it wasn't enough. I ate some ginger, hoping it would settle my stomach. As I began the climb, I saw several friends descending. Their smiles and encouragement did more for me than any ginger ever could. "Keep moving," I told myself.

Mt. Fuji to Mt. Ray (20.5 miles):

As I traversed over to Mt. Ray, I tried to fuel a little more, but I was too nauseous. I told myself I'd have to eat at Mt. Ray regardless of how I felt. Too much time had elapsed since I'd last eaten and I was falling too far behind in my intake. I would never finish if I didn't take in more calories. Even if I couldn't hold anything down, I still needed to stop and try to eat.

Shortly after leaving Mt. Fuji, I felt a sharp pain in my right achilles tendon, so sharp and painful I almost screamed. I stopped running to see what the issue was. I saw a bright red/white circle on my ankle and noticed it had started to swell. I knew right away I'd been stun by a bee. I tried to move as quickly as I could and ignore it, but the pain was severe and I had trouble moving my foot and ankle. 

When I arrived at Mt. Ray, I was greeted by my friend Betsy, who asked how I was. I told her I had been nauseous for several hours and that I'd been stun in my achilles tendon by a bee. Another volunteer overheard and said that they had already seen several runners come in with bee stings. She was prepared to take care of it. As she checked for a stinger and treated the sting, I stood still and tried to hold down some fluids and fuel. My stop at Mt. Ray was one of my longer aid station stops, but probably the most necessary one. When I left, the pain in my achilles had diminished significantly thanks to the magical ointment the volunteer applied, and I had consumed enough calories to keep moving. 

Mt. Ray to the Twins (27.1 miles):

During the next severe miles, my nausea returned and was twice as bad as it had been. To make things worse, my need to pee became more and more frequent and the pain I experienced each time became more and more severe. I reached a point where I had to walk for several minutes every time I had to stop to pee because the pain had gotten so bad. This, I knew, was nothing I could resolve. "Keep moving," I told myself. All I could do was try to drink as much as possible and hope it would subside. It didn't. 

The Twins to Charlton Lake (32 miles):

As I made my way to Charlton Lake, I was in pain, but I felt excited. Somehow, I was still right on pace with where I expected to be and I knew I would get to see Sarah, who was volunteering, at the aid station. When I reached the aid station, I was greeted by so many encouraging faces and supportive words. "You're right on pace," Sarah said. "How do you feel?" "It burns to pee, I've been sick to my stomach for hours, I can't get the swelling in my hands down, and I was stun in my achilles tendon." "You're just going to have to suck it up and get through this," she said. I knew she was right. As I prepared to leave, the aid station captain, Dennis, encouraged me, walking me through the next section. I was ready to keep moving.

Charlton Lake to Road 4290 (37.2 miles):

As I made my way to Road 4290, my nausea started to subside and I was able to start stomaching gels. It wasn't much, but it was something. Little did I know, gels would be all I would be able to stomach for the remainder of the race.

Road 4290 is, for me, where the race begins. The heat and the more difficult of the climbs await runners after this aid station. The first 37 miles are a warm-up. As I approached the aid station, I told myself: "Okay, now your race has started. Move."

Road 4290 to The Twins #2 (44.7 miles):

The temperature at Waldo usually feels pretty mild. Most of the course (with the exception of a few miles surrounding Road 4290) is covered and altitude takes care of the rest. The temperature change seemed more significant to me this year, however, since I opted for the regular start and hit Road 4290 two hours later than in previous years. The antibiotics I was taking also had a side effect of increasing sensitivity to heat and the sun. I slowed down quite a bit in this section and during the climb up the second of the twins.

The Twins #2 to Maiden Peak (49.9 miles):

While the climb up the second of the Twins is long and sustained, there awaits a nice descent and runnable traverse to Maiden Peak. Despite continued abdominal pain and nausea, I was able to run this entire section and run it at a fairly good pace. 

As I approached the Maiden Peak aid station at the base of the final climb, I knew that my sub-14 goal was no longer feasible. I thought, however, that I might possibly be able to meet my finish time from last year. I wasn't sure, but I thought I was running roughly the same pace as I had the previous year. As it turns out, I reached that aid station in the exact same amount of time, to the minute, as I had in 2013. 

Maiden Peak to Finish (62.5 miles):

The climb up Maiden Peak felt more difficult this year than it had in 2013. A day of running on empty and fighting infection had weakened me. My legs felt fine. My lungs felt fine. My feet felt fine. My stomach and my bladder, however, did not feel fine. Still, I pushed and I pushed hard, surprised that I was able to hike so quickly. 

As I reached the summit, I saw my friends Bret and Gail, who had surprised me at around the same place the previous year. Bret yelled my name: "Desiree!" and put his arm around me. As soon as I saw him, I broke down. I had worked so hard to stay positive and to fight all day but, at that moment, I couldn't fight anymore. "I suck so much Bret," I said. "I tried so hard." "Every race is different, Des. They can't all be PRs," he said. I pushed harder, trying to finish the climb as quickly as possible. Gail joined me as I made my summit. At the summit, I saw Scott, volunteering in the same place he had the previous year. "How do you feel, Desiree?" "I'm having a rough day," I said. "It's not too late to turn it around," he said. I quickly began my descent, Scott's words still echoing in my head. I passed Bret and Gail, hugging them both on my way down, thankful that they were there when I needed them most. 

The descent down Leap of Faith took longer than it did the previous year. My knees started to ache and it took a while for them to loosen up. Once they did, though, there was no stopping. I ran and hiked as quickly as I could, repeating in my head "You need to suck it up and get through this" and "It's not too late to turn it around." I ran and I ran and I ran. I knew I would no longer meet my finish time from 2013. I let go of that hope and resigned myself to a 15:30 finish time. I knew I could comfortably make that. Then, I remembered the words of a friend that got me through the last section of this course last year, and I decided to see how much pain I could take. I pushed as hard as I could, determined to break 15 hours. I crossed the finish line in 14:54:29, 18 minutes slower than the previous year. 

Since finishing, I've felt conflicted. I'm simultaneously incredibly disappointed and proud. I'm disappointed because I know I could have done better, because I know I trained to do better. I'm proud because I know that I left everything I had on that race course and gave it everything I had every moment of the day. As I look back, I cannot think of one moment that I could have tried harder or moved faster or done something differently that would have changed my day. And, with the exception of my breakdown when I saw Bret and Gail, I ran the entire day with a smile on my face, ever grateful to be able to run. 

From the Brink of Collapse: Relentless Forward Motion

"Des! You're running!" said a friend as we crossed paths yesterday afternoon. "Sort of," I said. "No," she said. "Not 'sort of.' You're running."  

The last three and a half months have been emotional and scary. The year started with me experiencing what we now think was (and still may be) peroneal nerve entrapment, which led to foot drop, which led to severe tendonitis and soft tissue damage, and, later, resulted in a torn meniscus. For months I have been in constant pain with every step. For weeks I was not able to walk around my office let alone run. Getting up to refill my water bottle became a luxury. Once I tore my meniscus, I had to resign myself to the reality that there was nothing I could do, quite literally. For the first time, I could not even crosstrain for fear that doing so in any capacity would exacerbate my injuries and necessitate surgery. No, I would not even be able to maintain my fitness (no core work, no stairclimber, no bike, no elliptical, no walking, and no pool); all I could do was accept that I had to let it go. I pulled out of my spring races. As I traded my work heels for shoes that provided maximum stability, as I dragged my leg behind me, it was everything I could do to not cry out in jealously as I saw people who had the luxury of simply walking without pain. 

After several weeks of inactivity, I was finally able to wear flat dress shoes to work. It was a small victory, but this semblance of normalcy gave me hope. After a bit longer, I was able to use the elliptical and resume core work. I was still not allowed to train, but I could move my body again.

Finally, with the approval of a physical therapist, I tried jogging one day during lunch. As I laced my running shoes, my stomach filled with knots; not the knots of excitement, but balls of dread, sadness, and fear. For the first time, I was terrified to run. Given the precarious state in which the nerve entrapment had left my body, I feared that a single step might result in another injury, even more severe than the last. It didn't. I jogged half a mile. I was in pain, but I did it. I have never felt so defeated and so accomplished at the same time. A half a mile. 

Slowly, I built upon that half mile, jogging every few days, a half mile here and a half mile there. Eventually, I jogged two miles and then three and then five. Every step was slow and painful, but every step was one closer to turning the proverbial corner. Soon, I was able to run with Sarah D. “Running,” of course, for me, was not running by any stretch of the imagination; it was more like controlled hobbling. But Sarah, ever my rock, patiently slowed her pace, uttering words of encouragement when she could tell that my physical and emotional strength dwindled: "You know the first few runs are going to be the hardest, right? It's going to get easier," she said. Oh, Sarah, if you only knew the number of times I've repeated your words to myself over the last few weeks.

It’s now been three and a half months since all of this began. I’ve had my share of injuries, both minor and significant, but this has, without a doubt, been the scariest and has lasted the longest, and it's not over. I have seen doctors, an athletic trainer, a physical therapist, a massage therapist, and an acupuncturist. I have had my knees and hips contorted and my stability checked. I have had X-RAYS, ultrasounds, cupping, and Graston. I've been taped, stretched, and poked with needles. On mornings when I saw no point in getting up because I couldn't do what I love, I hobbled out of bed and did my physical therapy exercises. Every. Single. Day.  In the last few months I have learned that sometimes relentless forward motion, that will to go on that we draw upon during our darkest hours of races, is often needed to simply get out of bed. I have learned that we are not only what we have done, but are also what we have overcome. Every day I resolve to overcome pain and every day I get a little closer to turning the corner. So, am I running again? I am prepared now to say yes. I'm not as strong or as fast as I once was and I'm still in pain, but I'm moving forward. Relentlessly. 

Waiting is the Hardest Part

"Walk carefully, do your exercises, and be kind to yourself," said the athletic trainer as I left my appointment this morning. "It's the 'be kind to yourself' part that's the hardest," I said as I hobbled away.

To say that the last four and a half months have been a struggle for me would be an understatement. In September of last year, I suffered hypothermia at a race, which led to hypothermia-induced pneumonia and, later, prolonged bronchitis. After that, I started to experience inexplicable nerve issues and foot drop on my right side, which led to pain in my toe extensors and, eventually, a severe case of tendonitis that has prevented me from running for several weeks. Just when I thought I would be able to start running again, I experienced yet another setback. As I stood up yesterday, the right side of my body locked just as I turned away from my desk. I felt a pop in my knee and then immediate pain. Increased pain and inflammation led me to see an athletic trainer today, who diagnosed a tear in my meniscus. No, I would not be able to start running again soon. 

As endurance athletes, we train ourselves to be inured, to accept pain and frustration (both mental and physical) and to move forward.  We tell ourselves that we just need to work harder, to get more sleep, to fuel more effectively, to focus more on strength/speed/stability/flexibility (whatever the weakness at the moment might be) and we'll get through whatever the issue is. We just need to work harder. We do not remind ourselves to be kind to our bodies, especially when they do not perform the way we expect them to.

Today, the athletic trainer and I focused on retraining my body to walk; quite literally how to put one foot straight in front of the other and move my toes in the correct way. When I left my appointment, I broke down. The four-plus months of anger and frustration and sadness welled in my eyes and I broke down. I couldn't even walk. I couldn't even move my toes or my leg in a way that felt stable and didn't cause me pain. The possible long-term effects of a nerve issue terrified me, and I felt my 2014 race goals slipping away. All I wanted to do was run, to find the highest point of a beautiful, secluded mountain and sit there. Instead, I sat in my car and cried as my knee throbbed in pain, all the while wondering why my body couldn't just heal. No, I was not kind to myself. 

Several hours later, I have a little more perspective. Sometimes the answer is to work on strength/speed/stability/flexibility and sometimes there's nothing you can do except wait. Waiting, inaction, the complete absence of control, is always the most difficult part for me. But, as I sit here waiting for my body to heal, I tell myself that sometimes you have to fight for a finish line and sometimes you have to fight for a start line, and tomorrow I vow to be a little kinder to myself. 

Better Days Ahead

"The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry." -- Robert Burns

While I excitedly planned my 2014 race schedule and travel plans, the effects of a hard-fought end to 2013, as well as some career and life changes, took their toll. Just as I started to begin my winter training for my spring races, I came down with a prolonged bout of bronchitis. As I started to recover and regain strength, I suffered a severe and extremely painful occurrence of tendonitis. While both health issues have slowed my training and diminished my strength, speed, and energy, I am finally on the path to recovery (I hope) and am looking forward to a fabulous year of exploring new trails and experiencing new landscapes that take my breath away, both physically and aesthetically. I am also excited to be part of the 2014 team of Nuun Ambassadors. It's going to be a great year! http://www.nuun.com/ambassador-program/desiree-marek  

2014 RACE SCHEDULE:

  • February 15 - Hagg Lake 50k
  • February 16 - Hagg Lake 25k
  • April 4-5 - Zion 100m
  • May 10 - McDonald Forest 50k
  • June 14 - Smith Rock Ascent 50k
  • July 26 - White River 50m
  • September 13-14 - Pine to Palm 100m

Come Hell or High Water

"It is the hardest times in life we remember. A painful struggle can turn into a glorious victory if you are patient and believe in yourself." -- Liz Bauer

THE JOURNEY TO JAVELINA:

My quest for my first hundred-mile finish began in early 2012 when I attempted the Badger Mountain Challenge 100  in Eastern Washington. My race ended after 74 brutal miles when I suffered a severe case of hypothermia and had to pull myself from the race. Six months later, I toed the start line of the Pine to Palm 100  in Oregon. There were many complications during that race, some within my control and some outside of it. I made it 62 miles before missing a cutoff by 10 minutes. In September of this year, I started the inaugural Mountain Lakes 100  in Oregon. The race was ultimately called off due to severe weather and flooding, but not before I treaded water for 27 miles and was pulled with hypothermia. Of all three races, Mountain Lakes was possibly the saddest loss for me. I was more prepared for that race than any other and I toed the start line determined not only to finish, but to race it as hard as I could. When my race ended with yet another bout of hypothermia despite ample preparation to avoid just that, I felt defeated. In preparation for each of these races, I trained relentlessly. I learned something from every race and every time I emerged from my disappointment a little more determined, but every failure was crushing (the few friends who saw me deal with those failures know just how crushing they were).

On the drive home from Mountain Lakes, my friend Dana, who had gone to the race to crew and pace me, suggested that I run Javelina Jundred. I could continue my training for a few more weeks, she said, and then race. After such a grueling year of training and racing, the thought of extending my season another month was overwhelming. I was physically exhausted and mentally drained. Three more weeks of doubles and long training days, which would now have to include sauna training as well, was almost more than I could wrap my mind around. My determination, however, outweighed my exhaustion, and the next day I registered for Javelina. The day after that, I started sauna training. Come hell or high water (quiet literally in this situation), I was determined to finish a 100-mile race this year.

Brian, Dana, Kara, and me at bib pickup

Brian, Dana, Kara, and me at bib pickup

In the weeks leading up to Javelina, it was everything I could do to train. I was physically and mentally exhausted from preparing for Mountain Lakes and, to make things worse, in the days following Mountain Lakes, I came down with hypothermia-induced pneumonia, making training even more difficult. There were days when I questioned how I would make it to the Javelina start line. I felt like my body was hanging on by a thread. My lungs burned, my sinuses throbbed, and my tendons ached.

RACE MORNING:

Sarah and me at the race start

Sarah and me at the race start

When I awoke at 2:45 a.m. on race morning, I was not excited and I was not nervous. I was sad. It took me some time realize why I felt so down and then it hit me: I was about the attempt my longest running journey for the fourth time and I was going to do it in the absence of my Oregon running family. It wasn't that I needed my friends to be present in order to run; it was that I knew I wouldn't be able to share the experience with them. Thankfully, I had Sarah D by my side. Sarah, with whom I crossed the finish line of my first 50 miler. Sarah, who has, over the last three years, become my mentor, my confidant, and my friend.

Tent village at Javelina Jeadquarters

Tent village at Javelina Jeadquarters

LOOP 1 (miles 1-15.3):

Sarah and I ran the entirety of loop 1 together, chatting as we ran at a leisurely pace and taking in the beautiful sunrise, neither of us wanting to go too fast and risk ruining our races early. Before we knew it, we were back at Javelina Jeadquarters. Sarah and I parted ways to restock our packs and refuel. While most of the Oregon ultra community was not at    Javelina, I did have the good fortunate to travel with Dana and her partner, Brian, who were there to crew and pace their friend Kara. Kara and I never reached Jeadquarters at the same time, so I had the luxury of Dana’s and Brian's help and positive energy every time I arrived. They also shared text messages with me from friends at home, making the journey feel less lonely.

Kara's tent, aptly off of Pine to Palm Place

Kara's tent, aptly off of Pine to Palm Place

LOOP 2 (miles 15.3-30.6):

I set out for loop 2 alone, but feeling great. The sun was high in the sky at that point and the temperature was starting to rise. I knew that I could probably run loop 2 at roughly the same pace as loop 1, but that I would soon need to slow down significantly, especially for loop 3 during the heat of the day. Midway through the second loop, my right peroneal tendon started to burn. Having torn that tendon on the left side, I am all too cognizant of that pain and that feeling made me very tenuous. Still, I had no intention of stopping. I ran most of the loop by myself, until I met up with Bruce and Mike, two of my fellow runners from Portland, near the end of the loop, and we ran together for the remaining few miles.

LOOP 3 (miles 30.6-45.9):

For the most part, this loop passed without incident. Cognizant that it would be my hottest loop, I intentionally slowed my pace. Though I felt hot, I never really felt like the heat was unbearable. 

Sarah and I eventually met up with each other at an aid station near the end of the loop and we ran the final few miles back to Jeadquarters together. As we approached the aid station, I looked back at Sarah: "The sun's setting," I said. "We made it through the day." Elated, we went our separate ways to prepare for the night. When I saw Dana and Brian, all I could say was "F, that was hot!" "We know," said Brian. "We've seen a lot of people drop," said Dana. "But that was as hot as it's going to get," Brian said. "You made it."

Getting ready to set out for loop 4 (Brian in costume)

Getting ready to set out for loop 4 (Brian in costume)

LOOP 4 (miles 45.9-61.2):

While I normally dread heading into darkness, I was looking forward to a reprieve from the heat. I changed clothes, picked up my night gear, and prepared to head back out. Just as I was leaving, Dana asked if I wanted to leave my cap with my drop bag. "No!" I exclaimed. "You're not going to need it," she said." "It's my lucky cap. I got it at my first Waldo 100k. I wore it at training camp, I wore it at Western States, and I carried it Waldo 100k this year. I need it!" I strapped it to my bungee. 

Shortly after I started out on loop 4, the sun started to set and a beautiful array of pinks, oranges, and yellows spread across the Arizona Desert.

LOOP 5 (miles 61.2-76.5):

I began loop 5 knowing that it would be difficult. Until that point, the longest distance I had run had been 74 miles. I would cross the 74-mile threshold before finishing loop 5. I thought I had prepared myself for this loop. I was sorely mistaken. 

A mile into loop 5, I felt sharp pains in my abdomen and I quickly had to pull off trail for an emergency bathroom stop, something that has never happened to me during a race. After making that stop, I assumed the worst was over. Unfortunately, every time I started to run, the sharp pains surged through my abdomen again and I had to make similar stops about every mile for the next five miles. 

At this stage in the race, my appetite was dwindling. Eventually, I reached a point that I was unable to replenish my fluids and electrolytes and quickly as my body was purging them and I started to get nauseous. I had to walk just to keep my stomach calm. 

I death-marched my way to the aid station halfway through the loop. When I reached the aid station, I sat down. I had to get off my feet for a minute and I had to evaluate my situation and figure out how to fix it. I asked for a cup of ginger ale and a cup of broth. I slowly drank both and downed two Imodium that I had in my pack. As I sat in that chair, a volunteer kneeled in front of me. "What's wrong with your body," he asked. "Nothing," I said. "My body feels fine. My feet are throbbing." "Of course your feet are throbbing," he said. "You just finished pounding almost 70 miles of sand and gravel. You're on loop 5. If nothing's wrong with your body you just need to finish this thing. The question is whether you have the drive." I picked up my pack and I took one more sip of broth. I stood up: "This is my 4th attempt at this distance. I have the drive." As I was leaving, I overheard him talking to a runner who was considering dropping. I turned around and walked back. I looked at the runner, overcome by exhaustion and sprawled out in a chair, and said: "Tonight, quitting is going to feel good. Tomorrow, you're going to have to explain to everyone what happened. It will feel horrible." With that, I thanked the volunteer for the encouragement and he hugged me. 

I set back out into the night, exhausted, feet throbbing. With every step I mulled over my situation, trying to figure out what I needed to do to get through this patch. I crossed paths with pairs of runners (racers and their pacers) and I started to feel even more upset. I wanted a pacer so desperately. I wanted someone to help me remember to eat and to help me stay on course (I had already drifted off course three times). I wanted someone to keep me company. I felt defeated. I had held my goal pace for 4.5 loops and I was now watching it slip away. I started to doubt that I'd even be able to finish. 

As I neared the end of the loop, I saw Sarah setting out on her 6th loop.  We briefly stopped to check in. I told her I was sick and I was drifting off course. I told her that I didn't feel like it was safe for me to go back out alone. "You need a pacer," she said. "When you get back to Javelina Jeadquarters, ask for a volunteer pacer. There's no way you're not finishing this race, Des."

Finishing loop 5 (photo by Aravaipa Running)

Finishing loop 5 (photo by Aravaipa Running)

I reached Javelina Jeadquarters, but did not see Dana. She was out pacing. I didn't see Brian either, but assumed he was sleeping. I stopped for a minute and debated whether I should wake him or whether I could handle this situation myself. I knew how exhausted he was and, as much as I didn't want to wake him, I decided I needed his help. I woke him and told him what was wrong: I told him I had not eaten any food for three hours, that my feet were throbbing, that my ankle still hurt, and that I was drifting off trail. He sat me down in a chair, told me to loosen my shoes, and said that I needed to get some calories in me. He gave me some soup. I told him I needed a pacer and asked him to find a volunteer: "I'm not experienced enough to do this by myself," I said. "I can't go back out there alone." I put my head between my legs. As soon as I heard myself say it, I was ashamed, but, at that moment, I was positive it was true; I was sure I couldn't do it alone. "This can't happen again," I said. "It can't." "You need to decide how much you want this, Des," Brian said. I started to tear up: "I want it so bad. I've worked so hard. Ahhhh!" I exclaimed. "That's right," Brian said. "Get mad at it." I slowly stood from my chair, using Brian's arm for balance. He guided me over to the food table and I ate some more food. I stretched my ankle and groaned in pain. Brian asked what was wrong. I told him it was my ankle. "I've torn my ankle before," I said. "I'll do it again if I have to." Brian wrapped his arm around me and led me to the trail. I walked back out into the night. As I left the aid station, I reached back to feel for my lucky Waldo cap. It was gone. I stopped in the middle of the trail, my eyes welling with tears. I now felt truly alone.

LOOP 6 (miles 76.5-91.8):

Once I set out on loop 6, I was determined to finish at any cost and, regardless of pace, I was not going to stop moving. Having taken in a fair amount of calories at Javelina Jeadquarters, my stomach started to feel better. My body, on the other hand, was exhausted and I started to fall asleep as I ran and walked. Several times I would only realize I was sleep running/walking when I drifted off trail. I started to hallucinate and I started to talk to people who were not there. It was during this time that I realized that a pacer, for any distance, is a luxury and makes a significant difference. I had no idea how I was going to keep going, but then I remembered a message a friend sent to me a few days before the race: “The strength is there. The energy will come.” This became my mantra through the remainder of the night.  For a brief moment, I stopped to pee on the side of the trail. I glanced up at the sky and saw a shooting star and, in a cliché instant of inspiration, I knew I was going to finish. All of a sudden, the energy came and I began moving as fast as I could.

Shortly after sunrise, I neared the end of my 6th loop. As I turned a corner a couple of miles from Javelina Jeadquarters, I saw Sarah D. “Des!” she yelled. I wanted so desperately to stop and tell her how horrible the night was. I wanted to tell her that I got lost and that I got sick, that my feet were throbbing and that my ankle was burning. I wanted to tell her how happy I was to see her. “I can’t stop, Sarah. If I stop I’m going to cry.” “Des,” she said. “You’re going to make it!”

LOOP 7 (miles 91.8-100.9):

When I reached Javelina Jeadquarters at the end of loop 6, I stayed long enough just to grab a cap and drop some of my gear. I had 9 miles to go and I wanted to finish before it got too hot. 

Shortly after I set out on loop 7, a blister that had started to form during the night had become so unbearable that I was hardly able to walk, much less run. When I was at Javelina Jeadquarters, I had decided not to look at the blister. I didn’t have far to go and I usually try to leave blisters alone. I knew, however, that I would not get far in that condition, so I stopped on the side of the trail to take my shoe off and look at my foot. As I sat there and assessed the situation, I realized this was not a blister I could leave alone. I did not, however, have any means of treating it. So, I walked over to a cactus, I broke off a needle, and I punctured the blister. The burning as I put my sand-covered sock back on was excruciating. I knew I needed to protect the open wound, so when I reached the next aid station, I asked for some duct tape. I wrapped the tape around my foot to protect it and I continued on. My foot throbbed.

Crossing the finish line (28:24:11)

Crossing the finish line (28:24:11)

Loop 7 was hot and long. The sun had fully risen by the time I had reached the midway point and I slowed to what seemed like barely a shuffle. Eventually, I reached the end of the loop and, as I turned a corner to cover the last .9 miles, I saw Dana. Dana, ever smiling and encouraging. Dana, yelling “You’re gonna do it!” I started to cry: “It took so long,” I said. “It’s 100 miles, Des. It takes as long as it takes.” Dana thought I meant my race time, of course, but what I meant was the time it took to get to that finish line, the time between the start line of Badger Mountain and the finish line of Javelina Jundred. “It took so long,” I said. "I worked so hard." Dana gently put her hand against my back. “Be happy Des!”

Buckle in hand, crying as Sarah says "No more first 100s."

Buckle in hand, crying as Sarah says "No more first 100s."

I crossed the finish line in tears, so blissfully happy to have made it through the night and so proud to have made it through the dark hours alone when I didn’t think that I could. Even now, as I write this race report, my eyes are filling with tears.

Since finishing, many people have asked if I will ever run another 100. To that I say that, while I doubted myself many times during the race, I never doubted why I was there. When I crossed that finish line, I knew at that moment that I had many more of those races in me. Will I run another? I’m already registered.

I finally got my buckle.

I finally got my buckle.

The Race that No One Finished

"If after every tempest come such calms,/May the winds blow till they have wakened death!" - Shakespeare
My crew and me before the start (photo by Paul Nelson).

My crew and me before the start (photo by Paul Nelson).

Last Saturday morning, what seemed like the entire Oregon ultrarunning community congregated in a typhoon to run and support the inaugural Mountain Lakes 100. For weeks, the weather reports leading up to the race forecasted mild weather with temperatures in the 70s. Then, in the last two weeks, the mountain weather did what it does best and changed entirely. Predictions got worse and worse and runners and volunteers quickly adjusted their race plans.

The night before the race, I sat in my hotel room in Detroit, joking with my crew, listening to the wind howl and watching buckets of water pour from the sky. Sometime around 7:00, I asked one of my pacers to close the curtains. I knew that watching the weather was not going to help.

Race morning, I paced around the start line, incredibly excited to run this race for which I genuinely and finally felt prepared. As the wind started to blow harder and harder, I made one final clothing change and, soon after, we were off. 

Ridgeline leading to Breitenbush (photo by Mike Davis)

Ridgeline leading to Breitenbush (photo by Mike Davis)

I ran the first mile or so with Sarah D. We both seemed to find our calm through conversation and simply enjoyed being among so many friends in such a beautiful place. The rain was coming down and the wind was blowing so hard that my headlamp blew off my head. I stopped to make an adjustment and was quickly off once again. It wasn't long before I started to feel hot and overdressed, but I knew, given the conditions, that was probably a good thing. 

Over the next couple of hours, the wind beat relentlessly from every direction. As I ran along the ridgeline to the first aid station, pelting hail beat against my skin as I tried to push against the wind. I left that aid station quickly, knowing that I would see my crew at the next aid station, where I would be able to change into dry clothes and drink something warm. 

Approaching my crew around mile 11.5 (photo by Paul Nelson).

Approaching my crew around mile 11.5 (photo by Paul Nelson).

I reached my crew at around mile 11.5 soaked and cold, but feeling great. Despite the fact that the trails were washed out in some places and we treaded knee-deep water in others, I was running faster than I anticipated and I had nothing but positive energy. I was sure that this day was going to be a good one and that I was going to run even stronger than I had hoped. 

I reached the aid station at Road 380, greeted by my crew and so many volunteers who were eager to help in whatever way they could. I refueled, changed clothes, and quickly left with a smile on my face. 

Though I was warm and dry when I left Road 380, it was not long before I was drenched and freezing once again. Within the first mile outside of that aid station, my dry gloves were soaked and I was starting to lose feeling in my fingers. I maintained a good and steady pace, which is probably the only thing that kept me warm. I continued to eat on a regular schedule, until my hands were so frozen that I was no longer able to get to my fuel. I couldn't even open my Gu with my teeth because they were chattering so uncontrollably. With no other option, I resorted to eating the ginger I carried with me. I was able to get to it and I knew that, if eaten with frequency, the chews would provide me with enough calories to avoid total depletion. 

The stretch of trail back to Breitenbush Campground was longer than I anticipated and the weather was getting worse and worse.  The trails, once flooded with standing water, now blended together in a total marsh, course markings floating in

The ridgeline to Breitenbush (photo by Mike Davis).

The ridgeline to Breitenbush (photo by Mike Davis).

what seemed like a small river. Finding and following the trail took more concentration and became increasingly difficult. The trek to Breitenbush took longer and longer. When I reached the ridgeline once again, the wind had gotten worse, making it difficult to stand much less run. Feeling beaten, but determined, I welcomed the friendly faces of those I saw on the out and back as I approached the aid station (to Anne, Stephen, and Aric, all who individually took a moment to check on me: thank you). 

When I finally reached the Breitenbush aid station at around mile 22, I knew I needed to take a few minutes to recover. I spent 10-15 minutes there in front of a heater, welcoming the endless PB&J sandwiches that the fabulous volunteers kept handing my way. Unfortunately, there was no shelter from the wind at Breitenbush and I could feel that my condition was not improving, so I turned to leave. "Are you okay?" a volunteer asked. "I will be," I yelled back. Just as I started back on the trail, I saw Sarah D. As soon as she saw me, she held out her arms, a welcoming embrace only offered by someone who knows you so well she doesn't need to ask how you are. Sarah hugged me: "We're going to get out of here. We're going to get into dry clothes and we're going to get warm." "I'm so unbearably cold," I said. I decided that I would be better off traversing the 5 or so miles to the Olallie Lake aid station with someone else, so I turned around and went back to the aid station and waited for Sarah. 

Sarah and I left Breitenbush together with the unspoken intent of staying together until we reached our crews at Olallie Lake. Being with someone helped me stay focused. I was having trouble thinking coherently, but I forced myself to try to talk. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing so hard that neither Sarah's nor my words were audible, but we talked into the wind anyway.

Eventually, we reached the road on which we first started. Though the wind was still blowing and the rain still pounded relentlessly, the change in temperature was noticeable immediately. I felt like I might actually be able to recover if I could just reach my warm clothes. Unfortunately, the initial warmth that I felt when I reached that road dissipated as quickly as it arrived and I was freezing once again. My teeth were chattering and I was listing as I ran. When I reached Olallie Lake (approximately 27 miles, somewhere around the 7:16 mark), I saw my crew in the distance. Sarah B approached me to lead me to my warm clothes and food. I was shaking and crying uncontrollably. She rushed me into a cabin that had been opened for runners to change and get warm. She stripped me down to my bra and underwear and wrapped me in a heat sheet. At some point, someone sat me in front of a wood stove, where I drank cup after cup of hot soup. I have little recollection of my time in this cabin. I remember shaking and I remember crying. I remember trying desperately to control my body and my voice so I could pull myself together and go back out on course. 

As I sat in that chair in front of the wood stove, Sarah kept touching my skin to see if it had warmed. It hadn't. Finally, Trevor, one of the race directors, put his arm around me: "I can't let you go back out, Desiree," he said. I started to cry. "Please," I begged, "I've worked too long and too hard for this." "It wouldn't be safe," he said. Every ounce of energy I had left poured out in tears on Sarah's shoulder. I never thought my race would end; I was determined to recover and go back out. I begged Sarah to convince Trevor to let me run, but she insisted that I would be putting myself in danger: "If you lose your ability to navigate, no one will be able to find you in this weather." Defeated, I lowered my head as Sarah dressed me. 

The next morning, I awoke to learn that a few hours after I left the race, the race directors canceled the event entirely due to the weather and multiple cases of hypothermia. As heartbroken as I was to see my race end, I can only imagine how hard it must have been for the race directors, Todd and Trevor, to have to pull their friends, one-by-one, off the course of a race they worked so hard to organize. 

No one finished the inaugural Mountain Lakes 100, but the race was a tremendous success. Every person who showed up to volunteer and to run came together in an indescribable way, showing an incredible dedication to each other and to our community. This will be a race that we will all remember for a very, very long time. 

Overcoming Obstacles

"There is no greater source of discipline than the effort demanded in overcoming obstacles." -- Simone Weil

Three and a half weeks ago, a medical provider told me that it was unlikely I would ever run more than five miles again, and even doing that would take me several months. Two weeks prior, I hyperextended my left kneecap while sweeping a race course. My knee made a loud popping sound, one of those soul-crushing sounds that you know deep down means something bad, and I was barely able to walk. Despite rest, a steroid injection, aggressive physical therapy, and heavy doses of every anti-inflammatory treatment one could think of, I saw only minimal improvement. I saw medical provider after medical provider, but no one had a definitive diagnosis. In all likelihood, it was a severe sprain, probably to the ACL. Rehabilitation was going to be slow and only time would tell whether I would recover fully. I sat out my next race, the White River 50, which I had planned on being my Western States qualifier this year. Sad though I was, I knew it was the responsible decision. I accepted that I was going to lose my entry in the WS lottery and that I would need to start over next year. There would be other races, as everyone assured me, though it didn't feel that way. "All of that training," I would tell my friends, "all of the speed work and the doubles, the stairs and the hills, all of those long days in the Gorge. It was all for nothing."

To say that I was terrified to toe the starting line of the Waldo 100k  last weekend would be an understatement. I ran the race in 2012. I knew the difficult climbs and technical descents that awaited me. I knew that it would only take one fall to snap my knee and put an end to my ability to run for good. The night before the race, I quietly sat in the car outside our cabin, staring down at my knee. I asked my friend Dana for reassurance: "It's going to be okay, right?" "Don't give that any space in your head," she said. I tried to push my anxiety aside, but it was hard. The next morning as I waited for the race to start, I paced back and forth in the Willamette Pass lodge, thinking about the course ahead and what I was willing to do to finish. My goal was realistic: I wanted to finish uninjured. Ideally, I wanted to finish before the 18-hour cutoff to get a hat. In my perfect world, I wanted to finish in 16 hours, though I knew that was incredibly unlikely. That was an ambitious goal for me under even the best circumstances, I thought. I gave my friends split times for a 16:30 finish and I opted for the early start, hoping that that would give me enough time to finish and still get a hat. I toed the start line at 3:00 a.m.

In the dark of the night I ran. I couldn't think about the altitude or my stomach, whether I ate enough that morning or whether I should have stretched the night before. I couldn't focus on the little things that preoccupy our minds as we start races. All I could focus on was my knee. "Yep, there it is," I thought. I had covered less than a mile and I could feel my knee and that it wasn't tracking properly. I had no idea how it was going to hold up, but I pushed forward. By the time I reached the first aid station at about 7.4 miles in, I felt continued discomfort, but it had not worsened. I knew then that a finish was at least possible.

As the sun started to rise, I made the first climb up Mt. Fuji. I reached the top where a volunteer told me that I was the second person to summit the mountain that morning. I stood at the top, taking in the breathtaking beauty that surrounded me and trying to wrap my mind around how it was possible that I reached the summit so quickly. "Are you okay?" a volunteer asked as I stood there. "I'm fantastic!" I said, taking in one last view. I was so elated to have made it that far. I couldn't help but smile.

Shortly after descending Mt. Fuji, my right calf started to spasm and then to cramp, despite fueling more than adequately. I was able to push through it until my calf seized all of a sudden and I collapsed on the trail. "No way!" I thought. "This is not going to be how this day ends." I couldn't move for a few moments, but I was eventually able to get up and walk. Thankfully, I was able to get it to stabilize within the next couple of miles and I was able to refuel and recover at the Mt. Ray aid station.

The meadow just before Mt. Ray (Photo by Long Run Pictures)

The meadow just before Mt. Ray (Photo by Long Run Pictures)

As I reached the Mt. Ray aid station at mile 20.5, I was greeted by cheers and my friend Dana who, though there to crew another runner, offered to support me as much as she could. As I refueled, a volunteer took out her phone and said "I need to take a picture of the first woman!" "No, no," I said. "I'm an early starter. I don't count." "You are the first woman to reach this aid station," she said. "You count." That is the tenor of the Waldo 100k: every single person, front runner or back of the pack, matters. Every single person receives the same support and encouragement.

I ran out of the Mt. Ray aid station, waiting for my knee to slow me down, but, to my surprise, it didn't. I told myself from the first step, though, that my race did not begin until the Rd. 4290 aid station (mile 37.2), which is where I started to break down last year. I would not allow myself to think about how I felt until that point. I continued to run, thinking of Dana's words: "Don't give that [negativity and self doubt] any space in your head." I thought of nothing but all of the positive things and wonderful people in my life, sometimes listing them out loud. There are so many; it was easy. I left no room for negativity.

When I reached the Rd. 4290 aid station, I was greeted by my friend Jason, who quickly refilled my pack. I asked him about the trail ahead. While I'd run the race before, the course last year was a bit different because it was rerouted due to fires, so I couldn't envision the next several miles completely. He pulled out his chart, and talked me through the next couple of aid stations. That was enough to keep me going.

After climbing back up The Twins, I made a quick descent, surprising myself how well I was able to traverse the terrain and how well my knee did running downhill. It was during this descent that it occurred to me: the training wasn't for nothing; it was for Waldo. I ran faster.

The summit of Maiden Peak (approx. 8,000 ft).

The summit of Maiden Peak (approx. 8,000 ft).

As I began the climb up Maiden Peak, I thought about how miserable that climb was last year and how it almost broke me. I swore that I would not let it break me this year. I had 12.5 miles left and I was not going to let negativity take up any space in my head. I thought again about all of the positive things in my life and about all of the amazing support I had received throughout the day. Then, midway through the climb, I saw in the distance my friends Bret and Gail, sitting on a log, waiting for me. "We couldn't catch you at the aid stations," Bret said, "so we asked ourselves where you would need encouragement the most." I was overwhelmed with gratitude. "If I tell you how thankful I am, I'm going to cry," I said. "Don't waste your energy on tears," Gail replied. The two of them hiked the remainder of the climb and summited Maiden Peak with me, all the while encouraging me.  Afterward, Bret and Gail remained on the summit of Maiden to enjoy the view as I began to scramble down Leap of Faith to the final aid station.

The descent took longer than I had hoped; I was getting hot and my knee was getting sore. When I finally reached the Maiden Lake aid station (mile 55), I was greeted by my friend Laura, who gave me a hug and some words of encouragement before I started running the final 7.5 miles to the finish. At some point within the next couple of minutes, I realized, to my disbelief, that I was going to make my 16:00 goal. I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that I could take it easy for the final stretch. It soon occurred to me that there was no reason to take it easy and I decided to do something that terrifies me: I decided to run as hard as I could. I knew I wouldn't finish within 15:00 hours (the necessary finish time to qualify for States), but I thought I might be able to finish in 15:30 if I pushed really hard. As I ran, I started calculating my pace in my head. Those who have run with me know that doing math period, much less while I'm running, is a challenge like no other. I cannot be trusted to calculate anything with accuracy, so I was positive that I was miscalculating my finish time. I calculated my pace again and again. Again in disbelief, I realized that I could walk the remainder of the way and still finish within 15:00 hours. I then decided to run as hard as I possibly could, to see just how far and how fast I could push myself. Hearing the words of a friend echo in my head, I decided to see just how much pain I could tolerate. I pushed my pace for every single step of the final 10k.

When I reached the finish line, I was greeted by Craig Thornley, the race director, who gave me a hug, though I'm pretty sure I really just collapsed and he caught me. "I qualified," I said. "Yeah, you did!" he replied. "And now I'm going to vomit," I said as I caught my breath. I looked at my watch: 14:36.

It has now been nearly a week since I crossed that finish line and I still can't believe that I finished without exacerbating my knee injury, let alone qualified for States on that course, and ran a PR. Each morning since, I have awakened with renewed energy, knowing that not only am I still able to run, but I am able to push myself further and faster than I ever thought possible. Three and a half weeks ago, a medical provider broke my heart with the most discouraging prognosis I ever thought I'd hear in my 30s. Five days ago, I achieved something I never thought possible.

A Bittersweet Journey: Through a Pacer's Eyes

THE QUALIFIER

At the beginning of last year, I resolved to qualify for the Western States 100. While this was a lofty aspiration for a slow, perpetually-injured runner, I was determined to do whatever I needed to do to qualify. Despite experiencing several severe injuries in the spring, I trained to the extent possible and managed to qualify at the Mt Hood 50 miler in July with my training partner, Sarah, by my side. On the eve that lottery registration opened, I stayed awake until midnight, waiting with bated breath to register the way a small child awaits a visit from Santa. While I knew my chances of being selected were slim and that there were others with more entries who were, therefore, more deserving, I still hoped.

THE LOTTERY

In December, I again waited with bated breath. This time, I sat among a group of friends as we all watched the lottery live, each of us hoping that his or her ticket would be a lucky one. As name after name appeared on the screen in front of me and the number of remaining entries decreased, my anxiety increased. All of a sudden, the crowd around me yelled. I glanced up at the screen and saw Sarah's name. I was overjoyed for her and promptly sent her a text to let her know that her name was drawn. I continued to sit on the edge of my chair and watch the screen as name after name appeared. Unfortunately, my name was not among them. I soon faced the realization that I would have to qualify again and wait  at least another year.  It was a bittersweet day for me. I was so incredibly excited for Sarah but, despite being aware of my odds, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. My eyes filled with tears as I left my friends and walked to my car.

Sarah and me at Western States training camp.

Sarah and me at Western States training camp.

That afternoon, I resolved to support Sarah in whatever way I could and do everything within my power to help her get to the start line in Squaw Valley and across the finish line in Auburn. Having trained for and toed the start line of two 100s, I knew the road that lie ahead and I wanted to support her every step of the way the way she had always supported me. The next several months were stressful, emotional, and exhausting. We trained together and we traveled to Auburn to run for three days on the Western States course. We talked through fears and doubts and hopes. We discussed logistics.

Finally, race week arrived and Sarah, her partner Adam, our friend Janet, and I piled into Janet's truck and made the trip to Squaw Valley where we met Sarah's sister and brother-in-law.

squaw.jpg

SQUAW VALLEY/RACE DAY

Anxiety and tension were high once we arrived in Squaw Valley on the Thursday before race day. While Sarah grappled with pre-race stress, Adam, Janet, and I anticipated the long road ahead and internalized our personal responsibilities to Sarah and the rest of the crew. The evening before the race, I sat down with Adam and Janet. I told them that I was their weakest link when it came to navigating remote forest service roads and that my medical knowledge was limited, but that I had experience running alongside Sarah for hours and hours and hours. I told them that I was prepared to do whatever it took to help Sarah get to Auburn and that that was what I had to offer to the crew.

Sarah, Amy, and me pre race.

Sarah, Amy, and me pre race.

Race morning began at 2:30 a.m. when we all individually awoke without alarms. Our bodies knew that it was time. After eating breakfast, we piled into Janet's truck and accompanied Sarah to the start line. Music played and nervous energy permeated the crowd as the sun rose behind the mountains in the distance and the race clock counted down the minutes until the start.

ROBINSON FLAT (Mile 29.7)

Robinson Flat.

Robinson Flat.

After seeing Sarah off, we cleaned up the house where  we were staying, loaded the truck, and headed to Robinson Flat, the first aid station where we would see Sarah. As we waited for Sarah to arrive, I nervously checked the live updates on my phone to monitor her status. We knew that the first 29 miles were going to be tough and I was worried about her. This section was the only section of the course that Sarah and I had not run during training camp, so the terrain, exposure, and climbing were unknown. When Sarah arrived, she did not look good. She had already spent a lot of time in the sun, climbing in the heat and battling a blistering headache. When I saw her, her face was red and she was crying. My first thought was "No. It's way too soon." I felt like I had failed her already. As the rest of the crew replenished her fuel and Janet evaluated her physical condition, I kneeled next to Sarah and talked her through the next section of the course, reminding her that she had run that section before and that the unknown was over. We helped her change clothes and load her pack and then Sarah was off again. I hated seeing her like that and I wanted nothing more than to run a couple miles with her to ensure that she was alright, but I knew I couldn't go where she was going. This portion of the journey was Sarah's alone.

Sarah and me running into Michigan Bluff.

Sarah and me running into Michigan Bluff.

MICHIGAN BLUFF (Mile 55.7)

After seeing Sarah off at Robinson Flat, we packed up our supplies and headed to to Foresthill to watch the front runners for a few hours before going to Michigan Bluff. We arrived at Michigan Bluff well in advance of Sarah's anticipated arrival time. I ate and readied myself to begin pacing her. I refreshed the the live updates on my phone. I refreshed them again. As 8:00 p.m. approached, I walked up the road as far as the volunteers would allow to wait for Sarah to arrive. As each runner entered Michigan Bluff and the spectators cheered, I looked up, hoping to see Sarah. When she arrived, I quickly joined her side to see how she was feeling. She was still running strong, but, as I feared, her headache and nausea had not subsided. As Sarah went through her mandatory medical check, I ran to Janet and updated her on how Sarah was feeling.

Adam and me walking Sarah out of Michigan Bluff at dusk.

Adam and me walking Sarah out of Michigan Bluff at dusk.

Sarah reached Michigan Bluff after 8:00 p.m., so she was permitted a pacer early. I knew that as long as Adam and Janet could help her recover enough to get out of Michigan Bluff, I could help get her to Auburn. She just needed to walk out of Michigan Bluff.

As Sarah and I left Michigan Bluff, I felt hopeful. She was running well and, despite the headache and nausea, seemed to have enough energy to keep pushing and I knew that, even though the expected low that night still hovered around 80 degrees, the decrease in heat would offer a reprieve.

MICHIGAN BLUFF TO BATH ROAD/FORESTHILL

Soon after we left Michigan Bluff, Sarah felt overwhelmingly hungry. Unfortunately, no one thought to replenish her pack with fuel since the next aid station was only a few miles away and we would see crew again in a couple of hours. The stretch between Michigan Bluff and Bath Road was only about 5 miles, but it was one of the most difficult stretches for me as a pacer. Despite the fact that I was carrying an abundance of fuel in my pack, I couldn't, due to race rules, offer any of it to my starving friend. I guiltily watched as she struggled, and was thankful when she found a lone Gu in her pocket.

When we reached the crew at Foresthill (approximately mile 62), it was well after dark. Sarah went through another mandatory medical check while I filled her pack with water and we regrouped at the truck, where the crew replenished her pack with ample fuel. We headed off again into the night, not to see the crew again for several hours.

The next few hours passed as in any other run. We chatted through the night and we ran in comfortable silence. After a while, Sarah's morale slowly started to diminish as I knew it would eventually. I did everything I could to keep things positive, telling her stories, making jokes, and pointing out the beauty that surrounded us. I watched her feet closely, trying to anticipate roots and rocks and remind her about difficult sections of trail before she encountered them. I quietly encouraged her and occasionally pushed her to try harder. Every time she stopped and hunched over in exhaustion or pain or frustration, I hunched down next to her and tried to encourage her to keep moving, to dig just a little deeper. "It's just a bad patch," I'd say. "You'll get trough this." "It's been a bad patch for ten miles," Sarah said. "I know," I said, "and it may be bad for ten more, but you have to keep moving." My heart ached for her. I knew how she felt and I knew that nothing I could say would make it better. All I could do was encourage her and push her to keep moving. Sarah cried and she yelled and she cursed every hill. With each tear and cry of frustration, I tried to find something positive to say. It was all I could do. I couldn't absorb her aches and pains, but I could give her my positive energy.

Me just after crossing Rucky Chucky.

Me just after crossing Rucky Chucky.

RUCKY CHUCKY RIVER CROSSING (Mile 78)

Around 2:00 a.m., we reached the river crossing. The water level of the river can vary significantly throughout the day. When we reached the river, it was chest-high. Though a bit cold, the water felt unbelievably refreshing after several hours in the heat. We both reached the other side without incident, until I lost my footing on my final step and fell into the river, getting drenched. All I could do was laugh.

Sarah and I knew that if she could make it across the river, her chances of finishing were good. Though tired and wet, we both felt a sense of renewed energy as we hiked the 1.7 miles to Green Gate with the rest of the crew.

GREEN GATE TO AUBURN LAKE TRAILS/BROWN'S BAR 

As the sun started to rise and Sarah's spirits started to improve, I asked her: "When you finish, can I say 'I told you so.'" "No," she said. "Don't say that. I could still fall or something." "So what? You fall all the time," I said. "You'll get back up and run and you'll finish."

Shortly after sunrise, we reached Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2), where we refilled our packs and Sarah ate breakfast. We asked the volunteers who the female winner was and they told us it was "Smith something." Sarah and I cheered with excitement and the volunteers looked at us in confusion. We explained that Pam was from Oregon and that we had been rooting for her. We then asked about Amy and Meghan, but the volunteers did not know where they finished. With renewed energy once again, we left the aid station and headed toward Brown's Bar (mile 89.9).

As we approached Brown's Bar, I began to watch our pace vigilantly,  encouraging Sarah to pick up speed wherever she could. I could feel her frustration, but I also knew that she had made it through her low point and now was the time to push. I didn't want to make her angry, but I knew that she had come too far to get pulled, so I pushed her a little harder.

BROWN'S BAR TO HIGHWAY 49 (Mile 93.5)

Sarah and me running in to Highway 49.

Sarah and me running in to Highway 49.

After a long climb that felt like it would never end, we reached Highway 49 shortly after 8:00 a.m. Sarah ran to the restroom and I ran to load a plate of food for her. I yelled to Adam to grab some water and ready himself to run with Sarah to Robie Point. He was already prepared, wearing one of Sarah's skirts in an effort to make her smile. It had been a very long night, full of highs and lows and I felt obligated to see Sarah through to the finish. Sarah and I had talked about Adam running with her from Highway 49 to Robie Point, but I felt like I was letting her down by not being by her side. Once again, I kneeled next to her, this time to tell her to keep moving: "Don't you dare quit on me, I said." "I won't, " she replied. I knew she wouldn't, but, for some reason, I felt like I needed to say it out loud.

Saying good bye to Sarah at highway 49.

Saying good bye to Sarah at highway 49.

ROBIE POINT TO PLACER FIELD

After we saw Sarah and Adam off, we quickly made our way to Robie Point (mile 98.9) to await their arrival. "We have to hurry," I told the rest of the crew. "We can't miss them." Janet laughed and tried to calm me down. "We have time," she said. "We won't miss them." When Sarah and Adam arrived, the entire crew filed in on either side and ran with them. As we ran onto the track, I looked at Sarah and said: "That's your finish line. I told you so."

Running onto Placer Field with Sarah and Adam.

Running onto Placer Field with Sarah and Adam.

I did not run 100 miles. I did not traverse the canyons in the blistering heat and scorching sun and I did not earn a coveted Western States buckle. I did, however, journey seven months and hundreds of miles alongside one of the greatest friends I could ever hope to have, sharing her excitement, fears, hopes, and darkest moments and that was a greater privilege than earning any buckle. Dear Sarah: I always knew you had it in you.

The One That Haunted Me

"A life lived in fear is a life half lived." 

I first ran the McDonaldForest 50k in 2011. Not only was I new to ultrarunning, I was new to running period. I had no business toeing that start line, but I had no idea at the time. The race was difficult, painful, and I almost quit twice. Somehow, I managed to finish, but I did so limping across the finish line with ITB issues (the quintessential injury of the inexperienced runner) and in a regrettable 8:03:53.

Last year, I vowed to return to McDonald Forest to face my demons, and I anxiously awaited my chance to run the course again, until I tore my left peroneal tendon and was relegated to a boot. Instead of running the long-anticipated race, I returned to McDonald Forest injured and as a volunteer. Disappointed and demoralized, I swore again that I'd return.

This year, I trained and I planned. I trained and I tapered. I ran hills and I ran for speed. Finally, last Saturday, I returned to McDonald Forest once again, this time with ample respect for the distance, terrain, and difficulty of the course and profound appreciation for every step I was about to take. I nervously toed the start line, shaking with anticipation and excitement and terrified to face the course that almost broke me.

The MAC course is a complicated one, so it’s difficult to recount. It consists of 31.4 miles of technical single-track trail, water crossings, and fire road and has an overall elevation gain of approximately 7,300 ft. It is a difficult course under any circumstances. This year, runners also had to contend with temperatures significantly hotter than what Oregonians are accustomed to this time of year. When I finished running, the temperature had reached 84 degrees.

The lake where I stood as marshall in 2012. 

The lake where I stood as marshall in 2012. 

The race begins with a short loop of approximately two miles around a lake. In 2012, I was positioned at this lake during the first portion of my volunteer assignment. It was less than a mile from the start line, so I was able to hobble there without much difficulty. I stood there for several hours, directing runners off of the fire road and onto the trail that would lead them into the woods. Afterward, I stood at the finish line, calling numbers as runner after runner crossed. This year, as I ran past that spot, I felt almost as though I was passing a ghost that only I could see, one standing there in her black tights and tech shirt, teary-eyed as she watched the runners pass, trying to look strong and uninjured. I waved goodbye to that person as I passed. 

The next several miles were uneventful. It was already hot by midmorning, so I focused on hydrating and fueling and pushing through the exposed sections as fast as I could. I chose to run with two handheld bottles over running with a pack because I wanted to monitor my water and electrolyte consumption and balance vigilantly. By race end, I had consumed an unprecedented amount of liquid, well over 200oz

.

Descending Dimple Hill. I am so soaked with sweat that my skirt is sagging (photo by Long Run Pictures).

Descending Dimple Hill. I am so soaked with sweat that my skirt is sagging (photo by Long Run Pictures).

One of the more difficult climbs on this course is the climb to Dimple Hill. The Dimple Hill aid station is well over halfway in (18 or so miles), but I viewed this as the halfway point. When I reached this aid station in 2011, I felt defeated. I was struggling with knee pain and I was overcome by exhaustion. I knew that if I could make it to that aid station this year still feeling strong, I would be positioned well (both mentally and physically) for the remainder of the race.  I spent the entire climb to that aid station preparing myself for how I needed to feel. When I arrived, I was tired and dripping with sweat, but I felt much stronger than I had hoped. I fueled quickly and ran through the aid station, waving goodbye to the ghost me who stood there beaten, contemplating quitting. I acknowledged that version of myself long enough to bid it farewell. I barely recognized her. Excited to pick up some speed, I descended Dimple Hill a little too quickly, resulting in stomach pains and some minor vomiting, both of which I was able to run through, blissfully happy to have met and overcome yet another demon from that past race.  

As the temperature increased and I reached the more exposed areas of the course, my pace slowed, but I still felt strong. I began to check my watch a little more frequently, monitoring my elapsed time. I went into this race with the goal of finishing in under 7:00, which would have been a significant accomplishment on that course, in that heat, and given my previous finish time. At a certain point, I realized that even if I walked the remainder of the distance, I would still achieve my goal. Clearly I had not set my sights high enough. I ran faster. Soon, I realized that not only would I finish in sub-7:00, but I might actually finish in 6:45. Then, gasp! I was afraid to even think it. Was it possible for me to finish in under 6:40? Could I actually hit 6:30? That would be miraculous. No! I would not allow myself to think it. I got closer and closer and I was still running strong. I wasn’t hiking, hobbling, or shuffling. No, I was running. As I turned onto the final section of single-track trail that leads to the finish, I realized that not only was a 6:30 time feasible, but that I would finish well under 6:30. Astounded, I ran faster.

Crossing the finish line (photo by Long Run Pictures).

Crossing the finish line (photo by Long Run Pictures).

As I neared the finish, I passed several runners, as if riding the non-existent wind. Fueled by excitement, I couldn’t believe how quickly I was moving. Then, I encountered a hill. I had been climbing all day. I was running strong, but I was exhausted and hot. I saw that hill coming and knew that I couldn’t run it. I was going to have to hike. I stopped. A voice from behind me said “You’re running strong. I don’t want to take your place from you, so what do ya say we grind out a few more hills?” “It’s so much easier to give up,” I said without looking back, and I started running again. I was not wearing my heart rate monitor, but I didn’t need it to know that my heart started to race. The burst of exertion coupled with excitement of nearing the finish was almost too much for my body to take. My head throbbed. I ran the hill, only to descend and encounter another. I ran that one too. No, I didn’t need to hike. I could run; I just needed someone to remind me. Run I did, faster and faster and faster, crossing the finish line in 6:18:47 and 5

th

in my age group. More importantly, I out ran every single ghost and every fear that had haunted me from the course for the last two years. 

Not Quite a Race Report

For several reasons, I have had difficulty writing a race report for the Peterson Ridge Rumble 40-miler. While I would normally spend the days following a race processing the event (what I had done poorly, what I had done well, what I liked, what I didn’t like, what worked, and what didn’t work), I spent the days following this race absorbing the events that shook the ground beneath the feet of runners all over the world in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. My accomplishments pale in comparison to those of the elite runners who compete at Boston, but my race felt particularly insignificant in light of the attack. How could I think about the number of calories I consumed or whether or not I made the correct clothing choice while people continued to lose their lives and limbs? Now, almost two weeks later, I still do not consider my race significant and I find myself unable to focus on what seem like mundane details. I can only say that the Boston tragedy has given me added perspective and has reminded me to cherish my ability to run (or even walk for that matter). Having experienced several fairly severe and long-term injuries, I try to savor every blissful, painful, sore, tired, fast, and slow step that I am able to run. The events in Boston have only made me even more grateful.

I will say of my race that it was 40 miles. It was cold and snowed for a good portion of the distance. It was at a higher altitude (Sisters, OR) than that at which I am accustomed to running, which made my breathing labored at times. The terrain was breathtaking in places and mind-numbing in others. I ran hard, finishing in a surprising 7:03 and feeling like I could run 40 more miles. I cherished every single step that day and, in the wake of attack on Boston, I appreciate every single step a little more.

  

Sarah & me about 31 miles in (photo by Glen Tachiyama)

Sarah & me about 31 miles in (photo by Glen Tachiyama)



 

"How do you Feel?"

Pre-race (photo by Paul Nelson)

Pre-race (photo by Paul Nelson)

“How do you feel?” asked a friend as we crowded around the start line of the Hagg Lake Mud Run 50k. I always hate that question. The fact was that it didn’t matter how I felt. The fact was that the way I felt wouldn’t matter for several hours. The truth was, though, that I was incredibly nervous. This was my fourth year running this race and I had high expectations. I had been training for weeks to recover from injuries, strengthen my weaknesses, and improve my speed. Then, three weeks before the race, I got sick with the virus that had taken co-workers down one by one. Apparently, it was my turn and no amount of vitamin C was going to change that. To add injury, in the midst of being sick, I experienced a violent attack of vertigo and nausea caused by vestibular neuritis (a viral nerve inflammation), which landed me in urgent care and physical therapy, from which I am still experiencing side effects. Finally, as if being sick, dizzy, and nauseous were not bad enough, my left leg began to seize up during those weeks, making it painful to even walk, much less run. Consequently, I spent my taper sucking on cough drops, drinking tea and eating soup, and rolling my leg. I did not run. I did not regain strength through rest. In fact, between leg pain and coughing fits, it was everything I could do to sleep through the night. How did I feel as I toed the start line? Terrified. 

Henry Hagg Lake (photo by Long Run Picture Company)

Henry Hagg Lake (photo by Long Run Picture Company)

The race course is a double loop -- consisting of a combination of single-track and cross-country conditions with some pavement intermixed -- around Henry Hagg Lake. However, since a loop around the lake is only 14 miles, the race begins with a single out-and-back, totaling 3.1 miles, up and down a gravel road.

As I began the trek up the hill of the out-and-back, I could feel the nagging pain in my left leg. I kept hoping that the ibuprofen I had taken that morning would take effect soon and that the knots would loosen up over time. To my surprise, the hill was not the slog I remembered of previous years. Clearly I had gained strength after a year of running mountains, though I had not realized how much until I ran this hill. As I began my descent, I started to feel better, but I was still plagued by uncertainty. I glanced down at my watch as I would so many times during that day. My average pace was in the low 8s. I needed to slow down. I knew that, even though I felt good, I was starting out way too fast. Still, my 8:35 average persisted for several miles even as I began the first loop around the lake.

I ran the first loop without incident. When I reached the second aid station 13 miles in or so, I was greeted by volunteers I recognized from previous years. I spent no longer than 60 seconds at that aid station, just long enough to refill my water bottle and grab some fuel. As I left, I heard a volunteer say: “We’ll see you in a couple of hours.” “A couple of hours,” I thought. Her words echoed in my head. I had not glanced at my watch in a while. “I must be ahead of pace.” 

I continued through the 4.3 miles from the aid station to the start/finish area. These final miles are often the muddiest miles of the course and are aptly referred to as the “pigpen.” I ran through the pigpen as quickly as possible, trying to be light on my feet and jump the mud where possible. While running through this section, however, I landed wrong on my right foot, tweaking my right knee. I heard a pop. It hurt instantly, but it was manageable pain, so I assumed it would subside with time. Unfortunately, it never did and I contended with the knee pain for the remaining 16 or so miles.

 (Photo by Long Run Picture Company)

 (Photo by Long Run Picture Company)

As I reached the start/finish area at the end of my second loop (27k in), I felt exhausted. My legs were tired and my knee hurt but, more notably, my body had the exhausted feeling one gets from overexertion at the end of a cold. I turned the corner of the trail and saw the race clock: 2:57:34. I was three minutes ahead of my anticipated time. I was thrilled, but I was exhausted. “How do you feel?” a friend yelled from the aid station. I hesitated to acknowledge how I felt. “Like crap,” I said. “You’re bleeding,” she said. I looked down. My arms and my legs were dripping blood from the blackberry bushes that pervaded the trail this year. I was glad to see the blood. It meant that the sharp pain I had felt in my right calf for several miles was the result of a gash from a thorn and not a tear as I had feared. I spent the most time at this aid station (probably close to three minutes), talking and refueling. “There’s hot chocolate over there,” said a friend. “I can’t get comfortable,” I said. “I have a PR to run.” With that, I headed back onto the trail.

 (Photo by Long Run Picture Company)

 (Photo by Long Run Picture Company)

The next loop was painful. I was well-fueled, but tired. I was just over 17 miles in and I was worn out. I cursed my body for being weak and getting sick. I cursed myself for thinking I could actually run the time I had hoped. I cursed myself for not getting another massage and for not seeing my chiropractor. I had the proverbial devil on one shoulder telling me I was worthless and that I should turn around. I pushed forward, despite my inclination to stop for fear that my race was already over. I knew I could cover the distance; I’d done that many times over and on many different courses. I didn’t care about finishing; I cared about finishing in a certain amount of time.

In the next four miles, I started to experience a reoccurrence of dizziness and nausea resulting from the vestibular neuritis. I was having trouble seeing straight and I was sick to my stomach. Whenever the sun peered from behind the clouds, I felt like I was going to vomit. I pushed through the nausea and reached the next aid station, moving slowly, but still moving. I watched as my average pace increased, first from ahead of pace to being within range, then to being right on track, and then, finally, to being behind pace. I ignored the devil on my shoulder that continued to tell me that I was better than this pathetic performance and I continued to push.

By the time I reached the next aid station (about 26 miles in), the nausea and dizziness had subsided and I was ready to finish and make up the time that I had lost (my goal was still attainable). “Isn’t it amazing how tiring 26 miles can be?” said a volunteer. “What’s amazing,” I said, “is how 4.3 final miles can feel like 26 more.” I grabbed a Gu and I left the aid station, determined to blaze through the final 4.3 miles as quickly as I could, powerhiking if I had to, but never stopping.

My watch was set to alert me to fuel every 45 minutes. As the race progressed, I stopped watching my average pace -- knowing that the mileage my watch had lost over the course of the race had skewed the pace that my watch read -- and started counting the number of alerts (4, 5, 6, 7). As I neared the end of my second loop, I knew that, even given the most favorable margin of error with my watch, I was getting dangerously close to my time goal. I pushed as hard as I could on legs that had the dead feeling that only comes from racing as hard as you physically can. I got closer and closer to the finish, first surfacing from the trees onto a short stretch of pavement, and then back down onto single-track and through a parking lot. I hit the parking lot and ran past two volunteers: “Half mile?” I asked. As soon as I heard myself ask the question I wondered why I had asked it. I knew how far I had to go. I had run the race three times previously and had already completed the first loop. I knew how far I had to go, but, for some reason, I needed to hear someone confirm the distance. “Not even,” said one of the volunteers. “Maybe a quarter mile.” The clock was ticking and I was moving slowly. Just as I started to think that I might actually make my goal, my watch sounded for the eighth time. That was it. Six hours and I still had a quarter mile to go. Disappointment and anger set in.

A disappointing finish (photo by Long Run Picture Company)

A disappointing finish (photo by Long Run Picture Company)

I dipped back down onto single-track, catching glimpses of the finish line through the trees and hearing the crowd of friends, volunteers, and fellow runners cheer. I got closer and heard friends yelling my name. I wishfully glanced up at the clock, hoping my watch was wrong. 6:02:36, it read as I crossed the finish line. As I crossed the finish, I grabbed onto the metal frame holding the race chute to keep myself from collapsing. I felt the comforting arms of friends around my shoulders as I hunched over, one hand grasping the race chute and one on my knee. “Dammit!” I yelled. “How do you feel?” asked my friend Sarah D. “Dammit!” I yelled again. “I was so close!” How did I feel? Horrible. Disappointed. Angry. Like I left every ounce of what I had on the course and it still wasn't enough, like I had absolutely nothing left to give.

In the two weeks that have elapsed since the race, I have gained the inevitable perspective that comes with time. My legs are slowly starting to recover and I'm less and less nauseous with each passing day. I'm still disappointed and I have no doubt that I am better than that race performance. Still, I find solace in my more than 22-minute PR and I look forward to next year.

Recaps and Reflections

I began this year with an ambitious race schedule and a severe injury. Despite my early injury, which relegated me to an elliptical, a boot, and weekly physical therapy for nearly two months, I still managed to toe the start line of 13 races and see the finish line of 10 of those races. There were weekends this summer when, between travel and actual race time, I felt like I was literally living out of a car. While it was a hectic year, both in training and racing, I would not change any of it. I had the privilege of running in some breathtaking places, I met many new people, I solidified priceless friendships, and I learned a lot about myself. 

1)    I learned that, regardless of running companions or atmosphere, I do not like running road for any substantial distance. I learned that my heart belongs to the trail

2)    I learned that there is, in fact, such a thing as too much racing. Racing takes its toll on a person, both physically and mentally. I ended my year with two injuries, which resulted in a DNF, and breaking into tears mid race at two marathons because I couldn't handle the thought of racing any further. 

3)    I learned that, if I just give my body a chance, I am capable of surpassing any of my expectations. I learned that sleep and rest are just as important as box jumps, squats, intervals, and PT. 

4)    I learned to run in the dark and to be comfortable running long distances alone.   

5)    I learned that I can navigate trail and that I am not helpless. I learned that I can get myself to the finish line.

6)    I learned that a road paved with crap mileage does not lead to a finish line.

7)    I learned that, no matter how hard you train and no matter how much you want something, sometimes it isn't enough. 

8)    I learned to to try again.

9)    I learned that you should never be afraid to start over or to learn. 

10)  I learned to focus on the things I can control and to let go of those I can't. I learned to adapt.

11)  I learned what it feels like to race with purpose and what it feels like to race without it. I learned the pain of not caring.

12)  I experienced the heartbreak and disappointment of defeat. 

13)  I experienced the indescribable feeling of accomplishment. 

14)  I learned what it means to truly dig deep, to take one more step and breathe one more breath when you don't think you have one more step or one more breath left.

15) I learned that, alone or with a group, I always have friends running with me. I cannot count the number of texts, tweets, Facebook posts, and phone calls that I have received during training runs and races this year.

To those who drove me to physical therapy and gave me chocolate, who supported me during races and dried my tears after them, to those who climbed mountains with me and held my hand when I couldn't climb any longer, to those who encouraged me to try again: thank you.

 My 2012

 

To Strive, to Seek, to Find, and not to Yield

I registered for the Pine to Palm 100 because I wanted a challenge. I wanted to run 100 miles through some of the most difficult and beautiful country that Oregon has to offer. I registered because I knew I had what it took to finish. I had no misconceptions about the difficulty of the Pine to Palm 100 course. I read race reports from the two years past, I talked to people who had run the course, I reviewed maps and elevation profiles, and I spent some time training and racing in Southern Oregon. I sought, recognized, anticipated, and met with excitement the challenge of conquering such a course and I planned my races (specifically Mt. Hood 50CLR, and Waldo 100k) so that they would prepare me for this event. I ran in the Columbia River Gorge and at higher elevation on Mt. Hood. I ran in the heat of the day and in the dark of the night. I sought the advice and guidance of a coach, Yassine Diboun. Hour after hour, I logged mile after grueling mile. I trained until I collapsed and then I got up and I trained some more. No, I had no misconceptions.

The Start/Grayback Mountain:

Jeff & me at the start

Jeff & me at the start

Respectful of the distance, but unafraid, I toed the starting line of the Pine to Palm 100 at 6:00 a.m. last Saturday morning with my friend, Jeff, who would also be half of my crew, by my side. In the chaos of the morning, the official start was anti-climatic and unclear. At some point, I realized that everyone around me had started to move and that the race had started. I told Jeff to keep an eye on the college football scores that day and to keep me updated. Then, I made my way forward and started my watch.  I quickly caught up with my friend, Sarah D, and we chatted for the first three miles or so of the initial climb up Grayback Mountain.

Sarah D and me at the start

Sarah D and me at the start

After approximately three miles on paved road, the course turned off onto single-track trail and I began the push through the long initial climb. After about four more miles, I found myself swarmed by bees. I was covered in them. They were in my hair, under my shirt, and on my legs. My heart raced and my lungs burned as I, terrified, ran screaming up the vertical climb in an attempt to escape one of my biggest fears. When I finally shook the bees, I kneeled over, hyperventilating and crying. I heard a voice from behind: "Des? What's wrong?" It was Sarah D. "Bees," I said. After spending countless hours with me on the trail, she was all too familiar with my fear. "You can't stop, Des. You need to keep moving." I stood tall, I took a deep breath, I wiped the tears from my face, and I hiked forward. I knew she was right. If I was going to make the first cutoff, I couldn't spare a moment.

View from the summit of Grayback Mountain.

View from the summit of Grayback Mountain.

The ascent to the top of Grayback Mountain was longer than I thought (11 miles), but I summited the climb in three hours, which was exactly what I had planned to do. That left me four hours to descend the mountain, run down the road, which would include some paved highway, and make my way to the Seattle Bar aid station before the 1:00 p.m. cutoff.

Seattle Bar:

The 3:46 that it took me to reach Seattle Bar after summiting Grayback were brutal. The sun had risen fully and it was getting hot. I was no longer shielded by the canopy of the trail and, instead, was exposed to the sun along the open road. As I barreled around the corner to Seattle Bar, I saw Sarah. "My legs are jello," I said. She jogged along next to me. "Let's get some fuel in you and get you cooled off." We both knew that I couldn't afford for my legs to feel that bad that early.

As we approached the aid station, I was greeted by a volunteer who appeared to be in a position of authority. I expected him to ask, as most volunteers usually do, what my number was, if I was okay, or if I needed anything. Instead. he barked at me: "Get on the scale. We need to weigh you." While obligatory weigh-ins are not unusual at endurance races, that sort of abrasive address was completely unexpected. They weighed me. I had gained five pounds, which was not a good sign. If I put on any additional weight, I would likely be pulled from the race.

Sarah and Jeff sat me down, refilled my pack, and gave me the sandwich and Gatorade I had planned to consume at that aid station. Sarah checked with the volunteer, who had previously snapped at me, to ensure that he had written down my number and showed that I made the cutoff. "She has five minutes," he said. "What do you mean?" I asked. "I've been here. I made the cutoff." "You need to be out of here before the 1:00 cutoff or we're pulling you," he responded. Unfortunately, the fact that runners needed to be in and out of checkpoints before the cutoffs had not been communicated prior to the race, so my crew and I were confused by this, again, abrasive and curt treatment. "I wouldn't be doing you any favors if I let you sit here," the volunteer said. "Yeah, well, you're not doing me any favors by forcing me to run a 28-hour pace on a 34-hour course either. It's B.S.," I responded. I picked up my pack, handed Sarah my sandwich, and Jeff and I walked away, talking about the issues I was experiencing with my left foot. "74 out," I yelled, and I began the second climb to Stein Butte.

Seattle Bar/Stein Butte:

The climb to Stein Butte was difficult. It was another long climb and was along exposed rim. It was hot. Thankfully, Sarah and Jeff filled my hydration pack to capacity and had loaded it with fuel before I left Seattle Bar. I was under-fueled, but I would be able to use the climb to try to recover, which seemed to be the plan of every runner I encountered on the climb. I have never encountered so many runners who felt so terrible after only 29 or so miles. Runner after runner stopped on the side of the trail, dizzy, dehydrated, and nauseous. I was hot and tired, but I knew that I could not afford the luxury of stopping at all. I had to make the next cutoff at 5:00 p.m. I pushed forward. Slow progress was still progress.

  On the climb to Stein Butte, about 30 miles in (photo by Run Long Photo)

 

On the climb to Stein Butte, about 30 miles in (photo by Run Long Photo)

The next aid station was supposed to be about five miles from Seattle Bar, but it was closer to seven or more. When I reached the aid station, a volunteer approached me and asked how I was doing on water. "I'm almost out," I said as I took my pack off expecting her to take it and fill it. "I have bad news," she said." I sighed: "You're out of water." "Yes. That's the way it goes," she said. "I can give you a cup of ice." I took the cup of ice and drank what was there. I ate some of the limited food at the aid station and kept moving. There were still 22 people behind me, including Sarah D. I couldn't believe that so many people were going to have to ascend three more miles and then descend three more in that kind of heat before reaching water.

As I made my way down the road, I saw a runner lying in the middle of the road. I stopped to see if he was okay. "I've been out of water for hours," he said. He was trying to recover by drinking the small ration of water that another runner had given him. He did not look good.

With each step I took, I monitored my watch and the time of day vigilantly. I was running out of time. It was unlikely that I was going to make the next cutoff. I was too dehydrated, it was too hot, and I simply had too much trail to cover. My race was going to end at mile 39. I passed runner after runner along the trail, each having the same realization and each asking me if I had any water to spare.

Within another mile or so, I saw a car speeding up the dirt road. I waved to the driver, hoping he would slow down and not run over the runner who was lying in the middle of the road behind me. As the car got closer, I saw that the drive was the race director, Hal Koerner. He was taking water to the aid station. Sadly, it was far too late for many runners. "Do you need water?" he asked as he drove by. "No," I said. "Are you sure?" he asked. Fueled by anger and appalled by the lack of planning for hot conditions, I responded: "My race is over anyway," and I ran ahead. I heard the car tear off behind me.

Squaw Lakes:

I knew my chances of making the 5:00 p.m. cutoff at Squaw Lakes was unlikely, but I also knew that I needed to make it to my crew, so I pushed forward. I rationed the little water that I had left, sipping only to wet my mouth. I was thirsty and I could feel myself getting dehydrated. At the same time, I needed to pee. I knew, however, that I did not have the time to stop. My chances of making the cutoff were slim, but I still had a chance. I continued to run and I didn't stop, despite the incredible discomfort.

Eventually, I encountered a hiker along the trail. He clapped. "You're almost there," he said. "How far?" I asked. "A couple hundred yards." I was excited. Maybe the aid station was closer than I thought. Maybe my watch was wrong. I exited the trees and found myself in a trailhead parking lot. The hiker was wrong. I was not close to the aid station. I had reached the parking lot for crew. Spectators clapped as I made my way through. My eyes welled with tears. I wasn't going to make it. This was the end.

I found myself on trail again and saw the Squaw Lakes aid station ahead. I looked at my watch. It was 5:00 exactly. I saw Jeff: "Are they going to let me through?" I yelled. "Yes," he said. I looked at Sarah. "You don't have time to stop," she said. "I know." Still running, I threw down my pack and grabbed a handheld water bottle from Jeff. "Keep the lake on your left," he yelled, and I started running as hard as I could. I had to make my way around the lake and back to that aid station to make the next cutoff at 5:30 p.m.

I ran as hard as I could with 40 miles under me and I circled the lake in 25 minutes. Greeted by Jeff, I asked: "Did I make it?" "Yes," he said, "and they just extended the cutoff to 6:00. You can stop for a minute." I couldn't believe that I had made the cutoff. I was dripping sweat, overheating, chafing, and breathing hard. Sarah and Jeff sat me down, gave me back my pack, which they had restocked with fuel and night gear, checked me for medical issues, fed me, and then sent me on my way. The five minutes that I spent at that aid station gave me the opportunity to eat, catch my breath, realize that my race wasn't over, and get my head back in the game. I got up. "74 out," I yelled. I heard clapping and cheers coming from my amazing crew and friends behind me as I exited the aid station.  I felt strong. I was going to make it.

Hanley Gap/Squaw Creek:

After leaving Squaw Lakes, I spent a few more minutes eating, digesting, and recovering before I started running again. I was elated that my race wasn't over. I was 45 miles in and my body felt strong.

Over the next couple of hours, the sun started to set and it began to get dark in the trees. I began to cool. The forest no longer buzzed with bees. Instead, it filled with the hum of mosquitoes and the chirping of crickets. Night was falling and, while I am normally terrified of the dark, I met the challenge of running in the dark and navigating the course with excitement. I was determined to overcome my fear.

After another nine or so miles, I reached the Hanley Gap aid station. As I entered the aid station, I encountered a volunteer writing down numbers. I told him my number, but he ignored me. I walked up closer and told it to him again. He waved me off and rudely told me to go tell someone else. I walked away.

Once at this aid station, I had to summit Squaw Peak, obtain a flag from the top to prove that I summited fully, and return to the aid station with the flag. Runners had the choice of stopping before summiting the peak, but I chose to summit first so that I could rest, knowing that I had finished the task at hand. I had also received no attention from the volunteers, so I saw no reason to make the initial stop.

After summiting and descending the peak, I was exhausted. My knees felt shot and my feet ached. I no longer felt strong. I reached the aid station again and was greeted by Sarah D's crew, Rose and Seth. My crew would not be at this aid station. Sarah D had not arrived yet, so Rose and Seth immediately approached me and asked what I needed. As soon as I saw them, I started to cry. They tried to sit me down, but I was so dizzy that I almost fell off the chair. "I don't have time," I said. "Yes, you do," said Seth. "They extended the cutoff. You have a few minutes." While Rose restocked my pack with the gear in my drop bag and helped me put on warm clothes, Seth got me some food. There were few vegetarian options, but Seth found some avocado and that, coupled with the food in my drop bag, was enough.

"What's wrong?" Seth asked. "My knees are shot, my feet are killing me, and I feel horrible," I said. I cried. Seth reminded me that I was having a low point, that I needed caffeine and sugar, that I was dehydrated, and that I needed to focus. "You have three tasks right now. You need to digest the food that you just ate, you need to power hike as fast as you can, and you need to focus on getting to Jeff and Sarah." "How far until the next aid station?" I asked. "8-10 miles," Seth said. "I don't know if I can do it," I said. "Your mind is messing with you, Des. Don't let it," I heard Rose say. "I feel horrible," I responded. "Look around you," Seth said. "Everyone feels horrible." I looked up and I saw runners vomiting, runners lying on the ground, and runners quitting. I closed my eyes. "I don't want to quit," I said. The caffeine and calories started to take effect, Seth's and Rose's words started to resonate, and I felt strong again. I stopped crying and Seth helped me stand up. "74 out," I yelled. "Are you going to be okay 74?" I heard from behind me. "Yes, I will," I said, and I walked out into the dark of the night.

The next eight miles were long and grueling. I hiked most of the distance, but I tried to shuffle when I could. The course was not marked at all during the eight-mile section, but I kept moving forward, assuming that I was moving in the correct direction. As I made my way down the dirt road, I saw fresh evidence of bears. I moved as quickly as I could.

As I approached the Squaw Creek Gap aid station, I saw Jeff walking toward me in the distance. I told him that my knees were really bothering me and my feet throbbed unbearably every time I tried to run. He sat me down and Sarah brought me warm broth. I told Jeff and Sarah that I was worried about making the Dutchman Peak cutoff by 1:00 a.m. "My knees are shot," I said, "and I had to hike almost that entire section." "Everyone hiked that section," I heard another runner say. I looked up and, again, in an almost-apocolpytic setting, I saw the carnage of runners that surrounded me. "Do you want to quit?" Sarah asked. "No," I said. "Then make them pull you," Jeff said.

Jeff helped me out of the chair, he grabbed his water bottle, and he told me he would hike with me up to Dutchman Peak where I would meet Sarah and we would run the final 35 miles together. I just had to make that cutoff.

Dutchman Peak:

Jeff and I walked out of the Squaw Creek Gap aid station together, joking and making conversation. The levity was uplifting and I had energy again. For three solid miles we hiked at a fast pace and took in the beauty and peacefulness of the night. After about three miles, though, I gradually started to feel dizzy and my nose started to bleed (it had been bleeding on and off all day due to the heat and dry air). After another mile or so, I started to feel nauseous and, for the first time during the entire race, I hunched over and tried to keep myself from vomiting. I stood erect again and moved forward but, from that point on, I had to stop every 5-8 minutes and do the same thing to avoid vomiting. The change in altitude, coupled with exhaustion and dehydration, was finally taking its toll.

After another mile or so, I started to sway when I walked and I moaned in pain with every step. "What hurts?" Jeff asked. "My feet," I said, "but mostly my back." We had planned that I would only carry one liter of water during the night but, because three aid stations had run out of water during the day, we adjusted our plan and I carried two liters on my back, in addition to fuel and gear, all day. After nearly 20 hours, my back could no longer handle the weight. I continued to sway. "Do you want me to carry your pack?" Jeff asked. "No," I said. "That would be cheating." He reached out and grabbed my hand and he didn't let go. He was my rock for the final mile that I death-marched up to Dutchman Peak.  Each time I moaned in pain, he squeezed my hand a little tighter.

We reached the Dutchman Peak aid station and saw Sarah: "I don't know if I can summit," I said. "It's not your choice," Sarah replied. "They're not going to let you through." While the cutoff had changed to 2:00 a.m. at some point during the night, I didn't arrive until 2:10 a.m. I would not be allowed to go on. My race was over.

Though it was only ten minutes after the cutoff, the volunteers had already packed up the aid station. Still, Sarah managed to find a chair, sit me down in front of the heater, and give me some broth. I put my head between my legs and I started to cry. "I tried so hard," I said. "I pushed as hard as I could and I still let everyone down. I'm so sorry." I looked around and saw the runners who were pulled before I was and the two who were pulled after I arrived. We commiserated briefly before the last remaining volunteers at Dutchman Peak turned off the lights and packed up the heater. We quietly piled into a car and drove off into the night.

The Pine to Palm 100 course was exactly what I anticipated. It was breathtakingly beautiful and posed the challenges of running a mountain 100 that I sought. I trained and I planned for those conditions and my crew and I executed our plan perfectly. What I did not prepare for were the tight, and ever-changing, cutoffs. I registered for the race knowing that I had to complete it in 34 hours. I did not think that would be a problem at the time and I still do not think that would have been a problem. Unfortunately, the tight cutoffs force runners to run a sub-30-hour pace early on, leaving them with no energy. That, coupled with the hot temperatures, poor aid, lack of water, and thoughtless and inattentive volunteers, set back-of-the-pack runners up to fail. The high attrition of this year's race is a testament to the poor support and running conditions with which so many runners were met. All is not lost, though. As I reflect on this race, I think about all of the things that I learned and about all of the fears that I overcame. I am a stronger and more experienced runner for it and, most of all, I have never been more grateful for my incredible friends.

During our drive back to Portland in the early hours of Sunday morning, we stopped at a rest area. Sarah helped me out of the car and locked her arm in mine to give me balance as I hobbled my way to the restroom. I looked up: "The sun's rising," I said. Side by side, Sarah and I walked on. "And things are exactly as they should have been," she said. I returned to the car and, as I lie back down, Jeff looked at me and said: "Montana won." No, I don't have a shiny buckle to show for my efforts, but I do have two amazing friends and I wouldn't trade them for anything.

The One That Almost Got Away

"There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning." -- Louis L'Amour

On the Wednesday evening preceding the Waldo 100k, the race director, Craig Thornley, announced that a wildfire had pervaded portions of the course that we were to run. Incredibly disappointed, I appreciated Craig's transparency and his efforts to keep runners apprised of the situation. The race would either be canceled or be rerouted, but Craig was not sure.  I checked my e-mail and Facebook for updates, incessantly refreshing internet pages in anticipation. At 11:45 a.m. on Friday morning (the day before the race), I received an e-mail: "Waldo is on." The race had been rerouted and would now be 105k. I was ecstatic! Five climbs, two peaks, and 65.6 miles. This would be the race of all races.

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As one of the most prestigious races in Oregon and one that is part of the Montrail Ultra Cup, the Waldo 100k is a little intimidating for us mere mortals. Being in the company of runners like Tim Olson, Ian Sharman, Hal Koerner, Yassine Douboin, and Joelle Vaught can leave one questioning: "Do I belong here?" Nonetheless, I was anxious to conquer this distance again and prove to myself that I am prepared to take on 

Pine to Palm 100. I sat on the steps of the Willamette Pass lodge and listened to the pre-race briefing, glancing up at the first climb that I would conquer the next morning.

"This is not Badger Mountain," I repeated to myself as I lie awake in the early hours of race morning, listening to the sound of rain drops hitting the roof of the car in which Sarah and I were camping. The sound was soothing. I was exhausted and nervous, but, somehow, I found peace in the quiet drizzle. "This is not Badger Mountain," the race that will forever haunt me. "This is not Badger Mountain, and it will not end the same way."

The first climb.

The first climb.

As early starters, Sarah and I toed the start line at 3:00 a.m.  In the dark of the night, we made the slow climb up the dusty, dirt road parallel to the chair lift, climbing approximately 1,400 ft. over about two miles. We reached the top of the road and, then, turned off onto single-track trail. We followed the trail in the dark for several miles at a gradual descent until we reached the Gold Lake aid station at around 7.4 miles. After a quick stop, we were off once again and soon began the second climb to the summit of Mt. Fuji.

View from the summit of Mt. Fuji.

View from the summit of Mt. Fuji.

The approximately seven-mile climb up Mt. Fuji was slow, but mostly shrouded in darkness, somehow making the hills easier to ascend. The sun started to rise mid climb and we were able to rid ourselves of the weight of our headlamps and run freely into daybreak with the energy derived form the morning sun. We made a brief stop at the Mt. Fuji aid station before finishing the climb to the summit just above 7,000 ft. As far as climbs in this race go, I found the climb to Mt. Fuji to be relatively mild. That said, the change in altitude was a factor for me and my breathing was labored once I climbed above 6,000 ft., despite having done some altitude training in recent weeks.

Charlton Lake.

Charlton Lake.

After summiting Mt. Fuji, we enjoyed a soft descent to the Mt. Ray aid station at about mile 20.5, from which we quickly began our third climb to Mt. Ray. The climb to Mt. Ray is a gradual one that gains about 1,500 ft. over approximately nine miles miles. This climb, again was uneventful. Sarah and I had made a pact early on that we would not allow ourselves to experience any low points for at least 28 miles. We successfully pushed through those 28 miles, passing the aid station at The Twins and making our way to Charlton Lake at around mile 30.4. Our stop at the Charlton Lake aid station was a bit longer than the others. I switched out my hydration pack and Sarah picked up a drop bag. We selected this stop as a major refueling point and then we pressed on.

The sun started to break through the clouds as we departed Charlton Lake and the temperature began to warm. It was not long before my clothes were dry and I started to get hot. "Don't let the heat get to you," Sarah said. I couldn't help it. I was already hot and I dreaded the raising temperatures.

The single-track, dirt trail turned to a single-track trail of sand/dirt mix, and, where we were previously shielded by the canopy of the forest, we were now mostly exposed through the next aid station at Rd. 4290 (about 35.6 miles in). This was the last aid station we would reach where drop bags would be available so, again, we spent several minutes there to refill our packs and pick up the contents of our drop bags. Normally, I overpack my drop bags slightly so that I have variety. When I reached the aid station at Rd. 4290, however, I panicked, knowing that this would be my last drop bag, and I made the unfortunate mistake of loading my pack with everything in my drop bag. It was not long before I regretted this decision. I slogged along the exposed trail in the heat as my pack weighed heavily on my shoulders.

Shortly after Rd. 4290, I reached the dark miles that we all anticipate and that we all dread. I stopped talking. I stopped eating. It was everything I could do to put one foot in front of the other. Sarah tried to pull me out my slump: "Remember why you're here," she said, but that made me want to cry. Tears welled in my eyes. "Keep moving," I told myself. "If you can't do this, you can't run Pine to Palm. Keep moving."

The next several miles were a struggle. At about mile 39, I stopped in the middle of the trail. "I'm going to try to pee," I told Sarah. It had been too long and I needed to try to force my body to recover. If I could do that, I had a chance of finishing this race. I forced myself to pee, I ate a Stinger waffle, and I had a silent conversation with myself. "You've covered this distance before," I told myself. "You've covered this distance and you've done it under harder conditions. Suck it up and move." Shortly after that, Sarah emerged from the bushes. "I'm ready," I said. "Let's go." By mile 41, I had recovered and I did not allow myself to fall into that dark place again. We began the fourth climb to The Twins. When I reached the aid station at The Twins, I donated all of the fuel in my pack other than what I needed to finish the race.

Adam on Maiden Peak (Photo by Long Run Photo).

Adam on Maiden Peak (Photo by Long Run Photo).

After Sarah and I ran through the aid station at The Twins, we turned the corner to see Sarah's partner, Adam, waiting for us. As a complete surprise, he had driven the four plus hours from Portland to run the final twenty or so miles of the race (and the toughest climb) with us. We were ecstatic! His support, encouragement, and coaching for the final 20 miles proved to be exactly what Sarah and I needed.

Each of the four climbs was overshadowed by the shroud that was the ascent of Maiden Peak, a vertical climb with few switchbacks, covering close to 3,000 ft. over 5 miles. The absence of switchbacks and the dramatic increase in elevation make this the most difficult climb of the race, one that every runner dreads. The slow climb to the peak felt as though it would never end. My glutes and hips ached. My lungs burned. I was wheezing. By the time we reached the aid station midway through the climb, I was hunched over, gasping for breath. I forced myself to eat, I caught my breath, and the three of us pushed forward. Adam, who is a climber in addition to a runner, slowed his pace to help be gain control over my breathing and to coach me up the summit.

Within a mile or so of cresting the climb, the we heard thunder. We knew that we needed to move faster, so we pushed as hard as we could. We emerged from the trees to reach the final section where we would climb another .1-.25 mile before summiting the peak. When we turned the corner, however, a volunteer was waiting to check our bib numbers to confirm that we had made the climb and then he sent us down the mountain. We would not be permitted to finish summiting the peak; the thunder and lightning had gotten too bad.

Descending Maiden Peak (Photo by Long Run Photo)

Descending Maiden Peak (Photo by Long Run Photo)

From the summit of Maiden Peak, the course follows a steep descent that leads to the final aid station before the finish. There I tried to consume enough calories to run the final 7.5 rolling miles along the PCT to the finish. Eating had become very difficult for me by this point, but I was able to stomach a couple of cups of soda, a few pretzels, and a bite of a muffin. It wasn't much, but it would be enough.

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The sun started to get lower in the sky and darkness was approaching. We were determined, however, to finish the race before the sun set and we had to put our headlamps on once again. We pushed forward as quickly as we could and, somehow, we managed to maintain an even pace. Due to the reroute and the fact that the course was long this year, we did not now exactly how much farther we had to go, but we knew that we were within 5k of finishing. We pushed harder. Soon, we heard the sound of traffic from the road below. We pushed harder. We saw lights. I yelled to Sarah: "Run it in, Sarah!" "We're finishing this together," she yelled back. I sped up, trying to catch her. "Go Des," Adam yelled. "You can do it." Soon, Sarah and I were side by side with the finish line in sight. We ran harder on our dead legs than I knew was possible. Then, the finish. Greeted by hugs and words of praise from Craig Thornley, Yassine Diboun, and Willie McBride, Sarah and I crossed the finish line in 17:29:13, just as darkness fell. Craig handed me my hat, the coveted Waldo hat that runners only receive if they complete the course in under a certain number of hours. As I reveled in my excitement over finishing the most difficult race I had ever attempted, I thought to myself: "No, this was not like Badger Mountain and, yes, I do freaking belong here."

Relay-izing You're Where You Belong

Like artists, runners have their mediums. We settle into our preferred distances, terrain, and race environments. Some people are sprinters and run 5ks and 10ks. Some thrive on the energy of crowds and the openness of the road, running half marathons or marathons. Some people love being part of a team and run relays. I have run short distances and long distances. I have run as part of a team and I have run for hours upon hours on my own. I have run on the open road and I have traversed narrow, overgrown trail. I am an ultra runner. I thrive on the pain of endurance, of constant forward motion. I derive energy from the solitude of the mountains, the trees, the water, the quiet breeze, and from the dirt beneath my feet.  

CLR team van.

CLR team van.

In 2010, I ran the Hood to Coast relay. It was a fun experience, but I found the magnitude of the race to be draining and the distance covered by an individual team member unfulfilling. So, when my friend, Sarah, asked me to join her Cascade Lakes Relay team this year, I was reluctant. Sarah assured me, however, that the race was smaller than Hood to Coast (approximately 175 teams as opposed to over 1,000), that it was scenic, and, most of all, that her team would be a 6-person ultra team rather than the standard 12-person team. We would get to run more!

The Cascade Lakes Relay begins in beautiful Diamond Lake, OR and ends in Bend, OR. Never having been to Southern Oregon, I was taken aback by the breathtaking beauty of the area, surrounded by the Three Sisters and Mt. Hood. 

Diamond Lake.

Diamond Lake.

As an ultra team, our team had the earliest race start at 6:00 a.m. Though we started early, my first leg was not until late afternoon. By that time, the temperature had soared into the low 90s. Consequently, I knew that my first leg would likely be my most challenging. The sun beat down on all 8.7 miles of exposed, red cinder that I ran. I started off at a comfortable and conservative 9:20 pace, but that quickly slowed as the heat took its toll. When I was half way through my leg, my team met me on the course and took the layers of clothes that I had shed and sprayed me down with with water. I pushed forward. 

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As I slogged through my leg, I got slower and slower. My body felt surprisingly good after racing MH50 six days before, but the heat made me feel like I was running underwater. When I reached the end of my leg, I was breathing hard, I was shaking, and I was dizzy. I am not a stranger to running in the heat; I fueled and hydrated appropriately. I did not push my pace. Still my body could not withstand the temperature. I did not know how I would run the remaining 32 miles I had committed to run. I could tell that Sarah was worried. 

For the next several hours, we followed our teammates as they ran their legs, spraying them down with cool water and monitoring their hydration, ensuring that they did not suffer heat stroke like some of the other runners we observed along the roads. Our team was exhausted, but few people were able to sleep due to the heat. 

My second leg was a block leg (two individual legs run back to back), totaling 13.3 miles. Beginning around 9:30 p.m., temperatures were much cooler. Terrified of the dark, I was comforted by the full moon and the sky blanketed with stars. I met Sarah at the exchange point: "Enjoy the cool weather," she said. "Live in the moment." I ran along gravel road and pavement in the peace of the night, occasionally passed by another runner, but typically alone. In the moments when I started to fear being alone in the dark, I glanced up at the stars and imbibed the breathtaking beauty that enveloped me. "Live in the moment," I repeated to myself. When my leg was over and I saw my team, I observed the look of relief on Sarah's face when she realized that I was recovering. 

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After my leg, I slept for several hours in the back of the van, occasionally waking to use the restroom or check on my teammates. I awoke just before dawn the next morning and began to prepare myself for my next leg, which would begin in early morning: 13.2 more miles. In the early hours of the cool morning, my leg began on pavement and soon transitioned to soft dirt and sand. Suddenly, I was away from the cars and the road and surrounded by trees, a river, and, eventually, a lake. The leg was so secluded, in fact, that there was no team access. I paused for a moment and, in my head, thanked Sarah for giving me another block leg that she knew would play to my strengths and that I would enjoy.  

It was not long after I finished my leg that I was fast asleep once again, at least until the temperature increased. Several hours elapsed before my next leg. It was hot again, but the excitement of nearing the end fueled the teams with relentless motion and enthusiasm. Teammates yelled to their runners from the vans, random people rang cowbells as they drove down the highway, and runners pushed as hard as they could, all with the excitement of nearing the end. I pushed uphill and downhill for 5.5 miles in the heat, battling the side stitches caused by breathing hard in high altitude, but comforted by the mist of the spray bottle held by the caring hands of my teammates. 

When I reached the end of my final leg, I was elated. I was tired, hot, and a little sore, but I had finished relatively unscathed. I was not injured and I had just raced two big weekends in a row. 

I was glad to have participated in CLR. I spent time with good friends and I got in some quality night training, altitude training, heat training, and sleep-deprivation training.  Running the relay also confirmed for me that I am not a relay runner. I do not like crowds, no matter how small. I find attention and hype utterly draining. I do not enjoy pounding pavement for mile after mile, regardless of the beauty of my surroundings. While I did not enjoy the event, I did learn something about myself and there's something to be said for realizing that you're right where you're supposed to be. I am hanging up my relay shoes. 

Unexpected Bliss

At the beginning of April, I went for a short, after-work run with my friend, Sarah. She was running her final shakeout before heading to Boston. I was trying to shake off my 100-mile DNF from a couple weeks before. We ran at a conversational 8:30 or so pace. As we ran, Sarah told me that she thought I could win my age group at our upcoming 50 miler in July. It had never occurred to me that I could win anything. For the last 2.5 years, I had just tried to get through my races. No matter how hard I trained, I didn’t look like those people who won and I certainly didn't perform like they did. At that point, I wasn’t even confident that I could finish the race.

Sarah and I parted ways earlier than planned that evening. The tear in my calf was bothering me and I didn’t want to push the mileage. Something she said, though, lit the proverbial flame and I started to run faster without even thinking about it. I glanced at my watch: 7:30. “Wow,” I thought. “I wonder how long I can hold that. Maybe I can go faster.” 7:15. 7:00. 6:50. “Holy hell! I broke 7:00.” I was elated. I had hope. Maybe I could place after all.

As I walked home that evening, my left ankle started to burn. “It’s okay,” I thought. “I’ll ice it and take some ibuprofen when I get home.” The next morning, I ran again. Little did I know that would be my last run for more than ten weeks. Nine days later, I learned that that burning in my ankle was actually a torn peroneal tendon and I would be relegated to a walking boot and countless physical therapy sessions for several weeks. I would not be able to run, despite my efforts.

My diagnosis was demoralizing. Like many injured runners, I went to a very dark place. My physical therapist threw around words like “surgery” and “time off.” After weeks of denial, I reached the realization that I would be lucky to run any of the races on my ambitious schedule this year, much less race any of them. I had given up my aspirations of placing at the 50 miler. 

I followed my physical therapist’s instructions to care for my ankle and regain strength, but I refused to believe that I had to stop training. No, I could not run, not even the quarter mile that my physical therapist cleared me to run. No, I could not walk or hike or use a stair climber, but I could use an elliptical and a stationary bike and I could still lift weights. So I trained. Instead of going for long trail runs on the weekends, I went to the gym for 3, 4, 5 hours at a time. I trained. Mile after mile on the elliptical, the bike, and, eventually, the stair climber, I trained. Finally, on a day beautiful June day, I ran again. It was not fast and it was not far, but I ran. The next weekend, I ran a little farther. The next weekend, I ran a 50k. I had hope. 

At the start line of MH50 (Photo by Long Run Photo)

At the start line of MH50 (Photo by Long Run Photo)

Long before dawn on July 28th, I joined several friends (runners and volunteers) at the Timothy Lake Ranger Station on Mt. Hood, where I would toe the line of the 50-mile race. I had many goals for the race: I wanted to PR my time from the year before. I wanted to break 11 hours and qualify for Western States. I wanted to win my age group. Most of all, I wanted to walk away from the race uninjured. I knew this race would either make me stronger or break me down. The knots in my stomach were unbearable. I was blissfully happy to have the opportunity to run after such a difficult recovery, but I was terrified.

As I toed the starting line, I had so many aspirations for the race, but so few expectations. I stood next to my friend Sarah as she tried to calm me down. She looked at me and said: "Let's try to stay together for the first mile or so." I was thankful for the company. When the gun went off, we ran side by side, talking like it was any other Saturday morning. My nerves started to calm.

I knew I couldn't hold Sarah's pace for the entire race (she's simply a stronger runner than I am), but I figured I would try for as long as I could. We continued to run together, passing people when necessary. I felt good.

Sarah and me at the start line of MH50.

Sarah and me at the start line of MH50.

We reached the end of the first out and back (the first turnaround) at Frog Lake (14.2 miles) in 2:30. I was already tired and my muscles were sore. I questioned whether I had gone out too hard, but I tried to push those feelings of doubt aside. I would never know unless I kept pushing. I knew I wouldn't achieve my goals for the day if I ran conservatively. 

Sarah and I ran together for another 3-4 miles, but slowly parted ways when I stopped to use the restroom. I told her I'd catch up, but I doubted I'd be able to. I was tired. I had gone out too hard too early. The next ten miles were very hard for me. I was tired and sore and I had unbearable side stitches. I continued to push, but I never caught up with Sarah. Demoralized, I decided not to look at my watch; I knew my time would just make me feel worse. 

As I approached the start/finish area (the 28-mile split), I felt horrible. My calf had been hurting for 6 miles and I was tired. I turned the corner to the ranger station and saw Yassine Diboun waiting for me. He asked how I felt: "Everything hurts, but I'm still moving," I said. He ran along side me, at what must have felt like a crawling pace for him, and asked what I needed. "Oranges," I said. He ran ahead, announcing my bib number to the volunteer. 

I reached the aid station and saw my friend Lynn, who was volunteering. "Sarah is going to be so happy to see you," she said. "Sarah? How long ago did she leave," I asked. "She's still here. She's waiting for you," said Lynn. I was so happy. The last ten miles had been miserable. I hoped I could keep up with Sarah for a few miles until the pain subsided. Normally, I have no problem running for hours by myself. This day, however, was one of those days when I needed support. Yassine and Lynn took care of me, bringing me food and wiping the sweat and sunscreen from my eyes. Yassine looked at me and said: "You and Sarah stay together today."

I saw Sarah emerge from the bathrooms. I was so happy to see her. "Unless I hold you back too much, I want to stay together today," she said. "I agree," I responded, and we set out for the second and final out and back. 

The next several miles went by without incident. Sometimes we chatted, but we mostly ran in that comfortable silence that comes after hours and hours of long training runs together. When we finally began the climb to the Warm Springs aid station (the second turnaround), we both felt demoralized. The climb was longer than either of us recalled and it felt like it would never end. We finally reached the aid station and met our friend Julie, who was volunteering. She gave us ginger ale and ice, we ate, and we pushed on. As we left the aid station, Sarah said "Okay. We have two and a half hours to get you a Western States qualifier." I didn't think it was still possible, but that comment rejuvenated me and I was ready for the challenge. "I already know I won't win my age group," I said. "I don't want to know our time." Sarah respected that and never mentioned our time again.

We continued to push. I found my pain cave and I kept running. I had no idea how I was still running. Several miles passed and we began to run faster. My calf hurt a lot. Still, I ran. I moaned in pain. I was having trouble breathing. "Do you need anything?" Sarah yelled back to me. "A new heart," I said. "My heart hurts." "Push," Sarah said. I ran up the final hill that I walked last year. "There's the road," Sarah said. The finish line was up ahead. We ran down the road, which was lined with friends and volunteers cheering us on. As I turned the final corner to the start/finish area, I saw the race clock. 10:30, it read. "That can't be right," I thought. I blinked and wiped my eyes, assuming my vision was blurred by sunscreen, sweat, and exhaustion. I glanced up: 10:31. I was going to qualify for Western States! I crossed the finish line in 10:31:58 with a PR of more than 1:15:00, I wrapped my sweaty arms around Sarah, and I started to cry. "We did it!" I exclaimed.  

Crossing the finish line of MH50.

Crossing the finish line of MH50.

Once I calmed a little, I asked my friend Seth what my age group ranking was. I hesitated because I was sure I didn't place, but I had to ask. He said he would check. He returned: "I didn't want to tell you until they were sure, but you were first." His words echoed in my head. I couldn't believe it.

Yassine found a chair for me and told me to sit. As I ate a burger and cooled off, I reveled in my unexpected accomplishments. Yassine kneeled by my side: "Doesn't it feel good to run that hard?" he asked. "Yes," I said. "I've never run so hard in my life."

A Day in the Hood

In an effort to continue my training for the Waldo 100k and Pine to Palm 100, I joined a few friends for a run on Mt. Hood this morning to gain some heat and altitude training. We ran part of the former Mt. Hood PCT 50 course, beginning at Frog Lake and going up to Timberline Lodge. We then went back down via the Twin Lakes loop. The run was beautiful, but it was a brutally hot and dry day for the Portland area, even on Mt. Hood. 

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We started at around 3,800 ft. and climbed to about 6,000 ft., though we hovered around 4,000 ft. for most of the run. While the elevation was not terribly high, I noticed a difference with the altitude and breathing became difficult pretty quickly between the change in elevation and the heat.

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Aside for the steep climbs and patches of snow, most of the trail was pretty runnable as the PCT is soft and not overly technical. Not having run much of this section of the PCT, I was surprised that the last mile or so up to Timberline is exposed ridge with sandy terrain, making it difficult to tun. We were unsure whether we would be able to make it all the way to Timberline lodge due to the snow, but we made it within .25 mile, where the snow was so deep and the incline so steep that we knew we would exert more effort than it was worth to reach the lodge. Since we all had a sufficient amount of water to make the return, we turned around and headed back down the trail and made our way to the Twin Lakes, where we stopped to cool off before running the final three miles or so. 

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I seriously underestimated the amount of sun exposure on this section of the trail and did not wear sunscreen. That said, I count myself fortunate that a minor sunburn is my greatest concern and that I was able to run 22 miles of beautiful trail and my ankle, albeit sore, held up. Now, for sleep.

A Beacon of Light

"I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you." -- Jack Kerouac

I signed up for the Beacon Rock 50k on a whim. Demoralized by the preceding nine plus weeks that I’d been unable to run due to a torn peroneal tendon (which followed my disappointing DNF at the Badger Mountain Challenge 100), I needed to run a race so I could feel like an ultra runner again (even if it meant running slowly). I needed to know that I had a chance of regaining my strength and my trail legs before the daunting race schedule I have this summer. I knew Beacon Rock would be a difficult race. Rainshadow races have a reputation of being difficult. I knew that running this race would be a challenge even under the best circumstances, least of all as my first race after a severe injury from which I still had not healed fully. With that in mind, I spent the preceding week preparing myself for the fact that I would not be able to race at capacity.

When I arrived at the race, I did not know what to expect. My ankle felt good in general, but it always does until I get moving; that is the true test. The right side of my body was very sore since it had been compensating for my adjusted gait for the last several weeks. I hoped it would loosen up once I got moving. As I toed the start line, I reminded myself that I was not going to race. I took my position at the back of the pack, ignoring my urge to inch closer to the frontrunners. I took off, slowly. My ankle did not hurt. My right calf, however, was very tight. I kept moving.

Halfway up the climb to Hardy Ridge.

Halfway up the climb to Hardy Ridge.

The course begins at a campsite, progresses across a parking lot, and eventually moves to an old dirt road, which is the beginning of a gradual and sustained uphill that lasts for several miles. I found my low gear and made slow, yet steady, progress forward. I started to loosen up and I felt pretty good, so I picked up the pace and continued to run up the hill. I was certain that I would not feel good for long, so I thought I should take advantage of the feeling while it lasted.

After a short distance on the dirt road, the course turns up a single-track trail, where runners begin the steady, uphill climb to Hardy Ridge that lasts for about four miles and covers approximately 2,400 ft of elevation gain. The climb is runable in places, but requires even the strongest runners to hike in others due to the steep and rocky terrain.  

View from the climb to Hardy Ridge.

View from the climb to Hardy Ridge.

After cresting the saddle of Hardy Ridge, the course goes off the backside and follows a steep, but runnable, downhill pitch of several miles. The terrain was soft and was not overly technical, so I was able to run with ease in most places without risking rolling my ankle. After several miles, the trail intersects with a dirt road for a short distance before the second climb.

After several miles of running, I reached the second climb up Hamilton Mountain. This, too, is a sustained climb, but only of about 1,200 ft over about three miles. While it is a shorter climb, the terrain is equally as, if not more, difficult as the terrain of the first climb. The climb weaves in and out of the trees on single-track trail, offering the benefit of several switchbacks, and ends at the top of Hamilton Mountain, which offers some spectacular views.

View from Hamilton Mountain.

View from Hamilton Mountain.

The course drops off the backside of Hamilton, where it hits a wide, open ridge that connects Hamilton with another road system. It was a windy day, so the ridge was especially windy. That said, the exposed section does not last long, so the wind was more of a reprieve from the heat and humidity of the day than anything else.

The ridge then intersects with a trail junction, which turns into more steep downhill and intersects with a dirt road. There are a few little ups and downs on this road, but, for the most part, it is runnable downhill back to the start

Running across Hamilton Ridge.

Running across Hamilton Ridge.

The course is two 25k loops, which poses some mental barriers. Reaching the start line and seeing all of the 25k finishers enjoy their post-race meals does not make it easy to turn around and run the same course again. I knew this was coming, though, and I prepared myself. I made a quick stop at the aid station, refueled, and headed back out quickly before I could dread what was to come. I glanced at my watch. I had run the first half of the course in 3:40. I was thrilled!

For a short period, the second loop was very difficult for me mentally. During miles 17-20, my ankle started to hurt and I had no idea how I was going to continue. I started to get angry that I was moving so slowly and, at one point, I thought I had taken a wrong turn. I knew I needed to push forward, though. I was out there to push myself and to see how far I could go; dwelling on every tinge of pain was not going to get me anywhere and it is not my way.

Midway through the first/third climb, I began to feel better. I looked ahead and realized that I was submerged in the mist. I stopped. It was so quiet and the trail was so breathtaking. I fell in love with the day all over again. I moved forward. 

The next several miles progressed without incident. About five miles from the finish, I caught up with my friend Teri. She and I commiserated for a moment or so and then ran the final five miles together, talking about food and how good changing out of our wet clothes would feel. When we approached the finish line, she said “Our time isn’t bad.” “I don’t want to know,” I said. “I haven’t looked at my watch. I know I won’t be happy.” We picked up the pace, drew the last bit of effort from our tired legs, and we crossed the finish lines with smiles on our faces. I looked at my watch: 7:31:40. I was thrilled! This certainly was not an unprecedented time for me, but, given the difficulty of the course, my injury, and that my goal was to finish in 8:00, I could not have been happier.

Today, I feel surprisingly good. My ankle is a little sore, as is the rest of my body. The soreness is good sore, however; it’s not injury sore. Most of all, today I have hope that all is not lost.

I will, without a doubt, run this race again. I cannot say enough good things about Rainshadow Running, the organization of the event, the beauty of the course, or the wonderful volunteers.